Fulton J. Sheen was a world renowned Catholic priest and bishop, famous for his international radio and television broadcasts. Sheen was also a theological scholar of the Christian faith, so well-versed in biblical knowledge that he taught at theological schools.
But as with all scholars, there are still lessons to learn.
On a trip to Africa to share the gospel with the poor, downtrodden, and diseased, Bishop Sheen found himself in a leper colony that hosted 500 people stricken with the terrible disease known for rotting human flesh to the point that a person’s own limbs lose all sensitivity. Bishop Sheen would never forget that day.
I had with me 500 silver crucifixes about two inches high. I intended to give each leper a silver crucifix. The first one who came to me had his left arm eaten away by the disease. He held up the stump; there was a rosary around it.
He put out his right hand. It was the most foul, fetid, noisome mass of corruption that I ever saw. I held the crucifix above it and dropped it. And it was swallowed up in that volcano of leprosy.
And all of a sudden there were 501 lepers in that camp and I was the 501st. For I had taken that symbol of God’s identification with man and refused to identify myself with someone who was a thousand times better on the inside than I.
Then it came over me the awful thing that I had done. I dug my fingers into his hand and pulled out the crucifix then pressed it to his hand and so on for all the other 500 lepers. From that time on I learned to love them by touch, by the incarnational principle.
On that day, Bishop Sheen simply followed the example set by Jesus; he touched a leper. Pushing past the fear, the stigma, and the risks, Bishop Sheen did something no one else was willing to do, except Jesus.
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4)
When we’re willing to connect with others, to touch them like Jesus did – even those who are very different from us – they take note.
Through the Year with Fulton Sheen: Inspirational Selections for Each Day of the Year by Henry Dieterich. Servants Books, 1985, Pages 215-216.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)