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The infinite in the particulars of our lives

Sunday, 02 January 2011 00:00
Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, officially ends the Christmas season. Today’s feast, the Lord’s manifestation, and Christmas, the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, point to the same mystery—God’s Self-revelation to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Infinite becomes finite, the eternal mortal. The Lord’s incarnation, indeed, seeming foolishness on God’s part, reveals precisely the infinite breadth and depth of God’s love for the world and humanity. Only infinite love justifies this infinite condescension of our God. And the proper response from us, God’s beloved, can only be a return of love. As the preface of the Christmas liturgy beautifully expresses: “In Him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”

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This Christmas Season, as part of our Jesuit Tertianship Program, I was fortunate to have been assigned to assist two younger brothers of mine, Fr. Javy Alpasa, S.J. and Fr. Lito Ocon, S.J. in the Parish of the Immaculate Concepcion, Culion Island, Palawan.

While the Augustinians planted the seed of Christianity in Culion in 1622, the island has been a mission territory of the Jesuits since 1906, the year the first batch of 370 lepers rounded up from all over the archipelago arrived. Under the American Commonwealth, by the ruling of Gov. Wright, Culion was established a leper colony in 1904, becoming the world’s largest by 1931 with 16,000 patients.

But with the introduction of a multiple-drug therapy (MDT) in the mid-1980s, leprosy has been wiped out from Culion. At the Yangco Hall of the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital, I said Mass for the remaining eight non-contagious people afflicted with leprosy. The rest have been treated and, together with their descendants, manage to eke out a living and lead meaningful lives. In 1992 Culion became a municipality and in 2006 declared leprosy-free.

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During my three-week ministry in Culion, I encountered numerous inspiring individuals, among whom are Dr. Arturo Cunanan and Mommy Nitz.

Dr. Art Cunanan, whose grandparents were lepers, recounted to me that as a little boy, because of the suffering and ostracization his grandparents underwent, he initially had wanted to become a prosthetics surgeon in order to be able to attach artificial fingers and limbs to victims of leprosy. But instead of treating patients one at a time, he decided to devote his energies to preventing and finding a cure for leprosy. After studying medicine in UST, Manila and London, he returned to Culion and introduced the Chemoprophylaxis treatment and the MDT developed by the World Health Organization.

Dr. Art is the single most influential person responsible for eradicating leprosy in the island. But it was not an easy journey, he recounts. Many patients in the 1980s preferred not to be cured, which meant the termination of their living subsidy from the government. What use was being cured when limbs consumed by leprosy would never to be restored, his patients argued. Dr. Art had to win them over — by being cured of leprosy, they prevented their descendants from infection. While they may never regain their fingers and limbs, they will prevent their children from losing theirs, he countered. After more than two decades of arduous work implementing the MDT, Dr. Art and so many unsung heroes have eliminated leprosy from Culion.

Both parents of Mommy Nitz were lepers rounded up from Montalban and Sorsogon. Born and raised in Culion, when the island was still labeled by outsiders as the island of the living dead, Mommy Nitz eventually became a teacher. After retiring from decades of teaching, she was offered a job by Fr. Javy to manage the parish cooperative. Instead of receiving a regular salary, she enlisted as a volunteer-teacher in the parish’s Adult Literacy Program for indigenous people living in the remote surrounding islands.

On Mondays, the parish Bangka would take Mommy Nitz to a remote island where she would spend the week gathering the elderly Tagbanuas and Tangays, teaching them how to read and write, add and subtract and teaching them how to pray. The parish Bangka would pick her up on Friday and the following week take her to another remote village where she served as teacher, catechist, counselor and community organizer.

As I said Mass in the different islands, I was delighted to meet the elderly who now can read and write. They prided themselves in having been able to vote and sign their own name in the last national elections. They now are no longer easy prey to middlemen who undervalue their daily catch of fish.

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Today is the Feast of the Lord’s Epiphany. In the stories of Dr. Art and Mommy Nitz, the intense compassion of the Lord for the suffering and marginalized is radiantly manifested. In the history of the island of Culion, in the story of the eradication of leprosy, the redemptive work of God is gloriously revealed.

Christmas and the Epiphany celebrate the mystery of the Infinite becoming mortal, the Absolute becoming historical. The invitation for us this New Year is to discover in finite human acts of compassion Infinite Love and to glean in the particularities of our lives God’s redemptive work. The Infinite has become finite. In all that is particular and historical we are now invited to contemplate the hidden presence of our Eternal God.

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Erratum: I would like to apologize to the Seventh Day Adventists for misrepresenting in my column dated Dec. 5, 2010 their community’s position on blood transfusion, which they, in fact, practice and advocate.

Published: The Philippine Star

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