The following is Bishop Caggiano’s February 11, 2024 Sunday homily
The year was 1979, and I was 20 years old, and I was attending the college seminary. And so while I attended most of my time and attention to my studies, there was a part of me that still kept one eye on the business world because I was still discerning whether or not I wanted to truly be a priest. And it was in that very year that AT&T, the telephone company, which then was the largest company in the world, launched an advertising campaign. Which so struck me that 45 years later, I still remember it. And I remember it precisely because it was so simple.
It featured a woman sitting at a desk picking up the receiver of those old fashioned telephones. Those of you who are younger may not know what I mean, but actually sitting on a desk and the slogan – what she thought – and then she made her phone call. And the slogan was “reach out and touch someone”. And it was brilliant, because at the time you paid by the calls you made.
The more calls you made, the more money AT&T made. Brilliant. And the slogan makes sense. But in first century Palestine, it would not have made sense, particularly as we hear in the gospel in the occasions when some of the members of the community were afflicted with disease, most especially leprosy. For the last thing you would want to do is reach out and touch them for many reasons.
First and foremost, if one were to even accidentally touch someone who had leprosy, then you would be ritually unclean and you would have to undergo the same ostracization isolation that a leper did. You would be cut off from your family, your friends, your livelihood, your money, your house. Out you went. And secondly, as we know from Hansen’s disease, which is leprosy, it is very contagious. So by touching someone with leprosy, you are putting yourself in great danger.
And so perhaps the slogan would say, don’t reach out and don’t touch those who have leprosy. Simple as that.
Today in the gospel, we hear that Jesus, in His great compassion and mercy, heals this man, makes him clean, heals him physically, heals him spiritually and sets him free so he could return to the life he had once. A beautiful reminder of his healing as Lord that you and I share in. But I must ask you a question, my friends. Why did Jesus touch the leper? Says it clearly in the gospel.
Jesus healed many times without touching anyone. He could have done it any way He wished, but He chose to touch the leper. And I would like to suggest that offers us a challenge. For as is true for the lepers, of the time of Jesus that they were literally isolated, they were segregated, they were left on their own. And you can imagine the great turmoil they felt because they literally had no one and no place to turn.
They were left to be alone, to die. So, too, when we sin, at times we feel alone, don’t we? We feel as if there is no one to turn to who could understand the whole we have created for ourselves. And even when you and I suffer in the modern world, when you get the diagnosis that, God forbid, you or I have cancer, there are many around who will sympathize, try to help, empathize, but the diagnosis is yours alone in the depth of your heart and mine to come to terms with. You see, my friends, what Jesus was reminding us is whether we talk about the effects of sin or the effects of physical illness or disease or suffering, there is a great loneliness, isolation that occurs.
And He touched the leper to let him know that he is not alone, that there is someone who walks with Him.
You have heard me often say, my friends, that you and I are to accompany each other in our life of faith, and rightfully so. But the path of conversion also demands that we walk with each other. When someone is asked to walk the path of suffering and illness, we are to walk with each other. And when someone enters into the last moments or stages of his or her life, that is when we walk with each other, there is no moment in our lives that we are to be alone, isolated, fearful. The Lord was willing to touch the man who had nowhere to turn.
And so I ask you, my friends, are you and I willing to do the same thing? Are we willing to touch the one who is addicted and is looking for someone to take his or her hand in recovery every single day? Are you and I willing to walk and touch the heart of the person who is suffering from perhaps illness that may not have an immediate cure or no cure at all? Are you and I willing to reach out and touch the one who has grown frail with old age and for whom the phone does not ring? Who is willing to go out and touch them, walk with them and let them know they are loved and not alone?
You see, my friends, it is easy to say that we will be a merciful and forgiving people. Perhaps to forgive at times is a challenge. But allow me to suggest it is not enough. But rather, you and I are asked to walk with each other even after we have forgiven one another, so that we can walk together in life hand in hand, and never to face whatever challenge we have alone.
In three days we will begin the great discipline of Lent, when we will walk with the Lord to face our own sinfulness, and He will reach out and touch us and forgive us, and remind us that even in our greatest sin we are never alone, He is always there with us.
Perhaps this Lent, you and I, to make the resolution that as the Lord has touched us, perhaps you and I can pick one person we know, frail, sick, suffering, addicted, struggling, depressed, lonely, anxious, one person we know and dare to reach out and to touch them.