As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am constantly intrigued at the descriptions in the Gospels of reaching out to "touch" those most in need of special compassion and healing. In Luke's Gospel, in particular, we find striking examples: "At sunset, all who had people sick with a variety of diseases took them to him, and he laid hands on each of them and cured them." In the cure of the leper, Luke puts it this way: "Jesus stretched out his hand to touch him and said, 'I do will it. Be cured.' "
Possibly our modern-day example of lepers in Jesus' time would be those suffering from AIDS. This disease has created such a terror and panic among us that few are willing or able to go near an AIDS victim. It is this reality which prompted me to announce that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles would open a hospice in the near future so that these patients could spend their last months and hours in an atmosphere where they could be touched by the Lord Jesus through his followers.
Many words have been written and spoken to describe the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that diminutive nun who works with the "poorest of the poor," and the description I like best is that Mother Teresa practices "hands-on Christianity." Her entire life and ministry have been devoted to searching out the utterly desperate people who lie scattered in the gutters of the world's cities.
It is this intense concern for those most troubled and burdened which calls to all of us who are disciples of Jesus to adopt that same attitude, that same concern for one another. It is simply not possible to profess to be a disciple and not be willing to seek out those who truly need "to be touched" in his name.
Jesus extended his most precious gift of healing in the form which is truly most needed--the forgiveness of sins. But this interior reconciliation, this change of heart, is so often granted with a bodily healing as well.
I am convinced that as we live in a world where there is so much pain, suffering, isolation and discrimination, we as disciples of the Lord Jesus must rekindle that same spirit and seek out those who most need the Lord's forgiveness and healing. Like Jesus, we never condone sin; but we always love and show compassion towards the sinner.
Jesus does not ask us to search out the guilt of the person suffering, nor to cast blame. Judgment is not ours; that is between the person and God. The Lord calls us to imitate him in "touching" those most in need of his healing and compassion. What makes Mother Teresa so popular is that she takes Jesus' example literally and seriously. She is not afraid to pick up a dying, decaying human body, because she is picking up the body of Jesus in that person.
Mother Teresa explains her ministry to the most wretched of human beings in these words: "Each one of them is Jesus in a distressing disguise."
As I spend time alone with the Lord with the Gospels open before me, I cannot escape his example, his call to do the same. Many times it would be easier to just write a check and send it to someone else who is caring for the most desperate members of our society. But the call is to a life far deeper and far richer. There is so little identity with the Lord in standing at a long distance from the poor and helping them remotely.
All the examples of Jesus reaching out to be of service to those in need reach a beautiful summit in the famous Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46): "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me . . . I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me."
Today's world is more filled with opportunities for "hands-on" love and service than ever before. Here in Southern California we find human tragedies all about us: thousands of homeless who have no place to call their own, no shelter from the cold and the wet of the night; thousands who do not have sufficient food to keep them healthy; countless numbers whose inadequate clothing causes shame and even deprives young people of the dignity they need to go to school.
Surely some of the more desperate human stories are to be found in those who suffer from mental illness, those for whom each day is an endless nightmare. You and I have so many family members and friends suffering from the uncertain disease of cancer, never knowing when their body's basic cells might once again trigger self-destruction.
So, too, the victims of AIDS. By reaching out to these suffering brothers and sisters, we make present the reality of Jesus in our time. We do not ask "why" they suffer from AIDS, but rather, we look into their faces and find there disguised the very face of Jesus.
I have been overwhelmed by the numbers of people throughout Southern California who have come forward to serve the AIDS patients in our hospice. Offers of help have poured in from every type of source: doctors, nurses, religious sisters and brothers, clergymen and a large numbers of people who want to give of their time and their lives to simply "be with" those who are suffering, to console them, and to let them know they are not alone.
It is so encouraging to realize that so many people in our own community have taken seriously Jesus' example and who want to transform their inner faith in the Lord into "hands-on Christianity."