The other day I watched a video of a recent visit Pope Francis paid to the little village of Ponte Mammolo on the outskirts of Rome. The video gave no reason as to why he went there; he just seemed to drop in. Needless to say the people went wild. They were so excited and so surprised with this ‘drop in’ by Pope Francis. Francis, with that big smile on this face reached out to touch and hug men, women and children. He asked their names, listened to their stories, blessed them and before he left he prayed with them. I’ve watched that video about five times now. It just brings out the deep humanity of Pope Francis.
I thought of Pope Francis’ visit to Ponte Mammolo when I read today’s gospel. Certainly Jesus was not as well-known as Pope Francis. But his reputation went before him more as a miracle worker than as a preacher. People flocked to him to seek favors as did this leper. They all wanted something from him. The only conversation we have out Jesus’ visit to this town is the man’s words ‘if you want to you can make me clean. Jesus answers, of course I want to –be clean. But Mark never describes any interaction between Jesus and the townspeople. We never hear of Jesus asking their names, how long have they been sick, how are their children, do they know of anybody else who could use help. In fact if we look at any Christian art depicting the miracles of Jesus they are all so solemn and staid. There is little if any of his joy of being with the people and mingling with them, talking and laughing with them that we see in Pope Francis’ visit with the people of Ponte Mammolo.
Yet there must have been. Jesus was a people person and he enjoyed the company of others. He accepted a dinner invitation from a leader of the Pharisees and another from a despised tax collector. He performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration, his second home was that of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. But when we think back on our religious art can we ever remember seeing Jesus enjoying a great belly laugh as he mingled with the people of his time. And yet he must have, he came to us to bring us the good news that we are precious to God. He came to lift us up.
Jesus must have been smiling when he looked this leper in the eyes, this man condemned to live outside the camp, forbidden to have contact with family and friends, and say to him ‘of course I want to’ – why wouldn’t I want to? Be made clean.
With a simple touch or better still with an embrace Jesus restored that unknown man to health, to his family and to his community. And then he tells him a very strange thing, ‘see that you say nothing to anyone but go show yourself to the priest.’ There’s no way the cleansed leper will do this. Forget the priest, he wants to run home and show his wife and children he is cured, his leprosy is gone. Then the neighbours hear and the news spreads thru the whole town. And Jesus has to go into hiding. People will only see him as a wonder worker and fail to listen to what he has to say to them about his heavenly father.
But when you stop to think of it – there are two things we can’t keep to ourselves – good news and bad news. Can you imagine a scene like this? A guy goes to work and is called into the boss’ office and told he’s just been put in charge of the most important department in the company – it will be announced tomorrow. He comes home for supper and his wife asks.’ Anything happen at work today? And the good news come tumbling out of him.
It’s the same with bad news. You have a secret, something someone knows nothing about. You are too ashamed to tell anyone. It’s eating you up, wearing you down. The time comes when you have to tell, you have to get it off your chest. It may be a total stranger you meet in a bar –they say bartenders hear more confessions than any priest. It could be told under the seal of the confessional – but it must be told. The cured leper couldn’t keep his mouth shut neither can a person burdened by a shameful secret.
Here we are as a parish family gathered to celebrate Christ’s great act of love for each of us. Can we imagine the Risen Christ showing us his wounded side, hands and feet and smiling on each one of us – with a smile like that of Pope Francis – and saying to each one of us – ‘it is good for us to be here’ This is my fantasy at this morning Mass, try to make it yours.