You may recall seeing a photograph or video of Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square during the first year of his pontificate embracing a man who suffers from neurofibromatosis—what many of us call elephant man disease. It is a rare and painful genetic disorder that causes external tumors and pigmentations that render the person hideous to look upon. As the Holy Father caressed his head, laid hands upon him in blessing, and kissed his wounds, it was reminiscent of a story about his namesake, Francis of Assisi.
From childhood, the future saint was terrified of lepers: he shuttered at their sight and ran away in horror. Leprosy destroyed not only bodies but lives. It was known to be contagious so citizens were afraid and those suffering the affliction were cast out from society. According to the story, young Francis determined to give his life to God but when he was on a certain road one day, he heard the bell of a leper approaching and it frightened him. His instinct caused him to turn around and seek a hiding place until the diseased person passed by, but something compelled him to encounter the leper. That he did, embracing the diseased man with the kiss of peace and realizing that he was not a monster but a human person.
Another avalanche of bad news hit the church this month rehashing the seemingly ceaseless narrative of clergy sexual abuse and hierarchical abuse of power which inflict more deep wounds of pain upon innocent, powerless victims. Though these crimes took place in decades past, there remains a strong sense that we have not adequately dealt with them and that their residue still infects the church. It seems that the Pope has attempted to address the issues head-on but faces a lot of push-back from inside the Vatican. I don’t know this to be true but have heard several interviews with, and read articles about, former members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors who resigned because they kept hitting brick walls in attempts to implement systemic changes. One of the reasons Francis was elected to lead the universal church was his willingness to face things within it that are ugly, even monstrous, including arrogance and self-protectionism.
Naturally, we are sometimes afraid to face monsters or uncover rocks that reveal creepy, crawly creatures or embrace diseases that infect our culture. But the best way to get over difficult situations is to go through them, face them head-on. Saint Francis embraced what he perceived from childhood to be a monster. In facing his own fears, he might also have suffered affliction yet he embraced the disease as a means to deal with his own “dis-ease” in order to transform his uneasy attitude. He couldn’t change the reality of leprosy but he could transform himself: his mind and heart.
As Pope Francis challenges religious leaders to face this horrific culture of sex abuse and cover-up, he, in a sense, wants the church to do as Saint Francis did—not turn around or run away or hide any longer until the malady passes by—but face, even embrace, it head-on. In that way, we might be able to transform our Catholic culture from a place that protects itself from what is ugly and frightening to a place that encounters and embraces Christ’s message of love in and through those who suffer most.