By: Sr. Clare Hunter
I wonder if he flinched. The disfigured man, not Pope Francis. From the first moment I took in the image, I’ve wondered how long it had been since that man – whose name we now know, Vinicio Riva – had someone embrace him with love. Had the absence of touch, of years of embarrassment, the voice inside that repeats the mantra, “you cannot be loveable like this,” made him cringe at the Pope’s embrace? Maybe he can’t even touch his own face. In a recent interview, Mr. Riva shares with the world the pain of his experience living with this disease, and of his encounter with Pope Francis. How many of us, without such a disease, can identify with Mr. Riva? How many of us feel the same about some aspect of our bodies, our memories, our wounds, ourselves? How many of us have quietly asked ourselves, could I embrace that man?
Like many, I immediately thought of the pope’s patron, St. Francis, and his famous conversion experience in “kissing the leper.” It always stuns me that of all the profound divine experiences St. Francis had, the one he recounts on his deathbed for the brothers, for all the world to remember, is his conversion through lepers. The saint actually heard the voice of God tell him exactly what to do: “Go rebuild my Church!” How many of us beg God for a direct mission statement? He received the gift of the Stigmata, the wounds of Christ, his flesh pierced by rays emanating from a heavenly seraphic figure. Legends of miracles abound. Honestly, those are the ones I’d want to remember. But of all the encounters with the divine, the experience he recounts over and over is the miracle of loving and caring for lepers, without repulsion, horror and fear. How often St. Francis recalled, “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”
Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., the author of Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, shed a bit more light for me on this intimate encounter. As we see in the words of St. Francis, his work with the lepers is enmeshed with his own sense of his sin, penance, and mercy. Fr. Thompson confirms that Francis had a lifelong fear of disfigurement and lack of beauty, including nightmares as a child, which was deeply rooted in his own sin of vanity. For most of us, the rotting flesh, stench and missing body parts would understandably explain the repulsive reaction. This is true for St. Francis, yet it goes so much deeper, as he knew it was his sin of vanity that was blocking his ability to truly love the lepers. Those individual men and women that he could barely be near reminded him of his own spiritual disfigurement. Before God, Francis saw himself as a leper, rotting and stinking in sin. The miracle of his repulsion turning into “sweetness of soul and body,” freed him from his prison of self-loathing. His openness to God’s mercy mirrored the mercy he had shown the lepers, which allowed him, as the legend recounts, to run and kiss a leper begging along the road.
And so I pose the question: “Who is your leper?” What about those in our lives who repulse, annoy, or cause such an emotional response in us that we cannot even be civil, let alone loving. Are they reminding us of what we cannot accept in ourselves, our own sinful nature, so much so that we distance ourselves even more from them, and from God? For St. Francis, it was his deep desire for union with God and imitation of Christ that urged him to care for lepers, in spite of his feelings. His fidelity to Christ allowed for his conversion. Maybe we should all print that picture of Pope Francis and the Mr. Riva and take this opportunity to ask ourselves how much we love God? Are we imitating Christ? Are we ready to order our lives so that we can be free to “kiss our lepers?”