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Sunday 29 January 2006

"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean"
(Mt 8: 2)

1. Faithful to her teacher and Lord, Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church always maintains alive and operational her awareness of being sent into the world to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick (cf. Mt 10: 1; Mk 6: 3; Lk 9: 1-6; 10: 9).

Like Jesus, who met the man suffering from leprosy, heard his cry "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean", healed him and restored him to social life (cf. Mt 8: 2-4), so the Church on this 53rd World Day for Those Afflicted by Leprosy wishes to listen to the very many people in the world who are still afflicted by Hansen's disease, that is to say, leprosy, and, through the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, wants to give voice to their cry for help so that all of us together feel involved with our various capacities and responsibilities in the commitment to offer practical answers to the need for the care and treatment of those suffering from leprosy.

2. Although, in fact, scientific, pharmacological and medical progress allows us today to have available effective pharmaceuticals and forms of treatment to cure leprosy in its early stages, there nonetheless remain broad swathes of sick people and vast regions of the world that do not yet have these possibilities at the level of treatment because of various causes which should be analyzed and assessed.

Some statistics presented by the World Health Organization (WHO) make us reflect:  at the beginning of 2005 the declared cases of leprosy in Africa were 47,596, in the Americas 36,877, in Southeast Asia 186,182, in the Eastern Mediterranean 5,398, and in the West Pacific 10,010.

Fortunately, according to the WHO, certain statistics exist that refer to a regression of this disease, at least according to the declared data:  from 763,262 people suffering from leprosy in 2001, the figure fell to 407,791 in 2004.

The just and shared satisfaction at the results that have been achieved in the fight against Hansen's disease should not mean less commitment or that the permanent needs, the endemic causes of this disease, the prejudices that still exist and possible dysfunctions at an organizational level, should be forgotten about.

A decline in the attention that is paid to this problem would be especially injurious specifically at a moment when - if we strongly wanted it - a decisive effort could be made to finally, and in every part of the world, eliminate the disease of leprosy.

3. This commitment certainly requires better and more constant cooperation between international organizations, national and regional governments, those non-governmental organizations that are involved in this field, local Churches and bodies operating at a local level, as regards specific and interconnected programmes designed to respond in a more effective way to contemporary needs at the level of prevention and the treatment of people who are at risk or who are already afflicted by leprosy.

Among the needs to which we are called to respond today, in addition to the development of more efficient and guaranteed organization and channels for the free distribution of pharmaceuticals and careful attention to hygiene, there is the need to create and train, above all else in the various countries and regions where leprosy is most present, groups of social- and health-care workers who are able to act in the local areas, diagnosing in good time the presence of this disease and treating it both at its initial stage and at the stage of its growth.

From this there follows, on the one hand, the need for suitably programmed projects of training, and on the other, the need to have more precise knowledge about the realities and the regions that are not sufficiently served or not yet reached by the various social programmes and programmes of treatment.

4. The Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care wishes to address a special and affectionate thought on this 53rd World Day for Those Afflicted by Leprosy to all the Christian communities spread throughout the world, their pastors, and to all men and women missionaries, to express to them profound and fraternal gratitude for their deep commitment in the fight against the disease of leprosy and in providing loving care to those people afflicted by it.

Indeed, one cannot forget how the Church has always in so many countries of the world worked with total devotion to the welcoming, the care and treatment, and the social reintegration of those who have, or who have had, leprosy.

The celebration of this 53rd World Day must become for all our communities an invitation to renew our shared commitment to prayer, to solidarity, to sensitization to this problem, to support for those of our missions that are especially involved in this field, and to those who work at different levels in the fight against the disease of leprosy.

On 29 January, in particular, I urge our communities to "remember" during the Eucharistic Celebration in which Christ is made present in so many people and in families that still suffer because of the disease of leprosy, with the hope and wish that the Eucharist, the actualization and expression of the salvific love and solidarity of God for us and for all men and women, becomes a spring of our greater love and solidarity towards people suffering from and sick with leprosy, a spring that is able to build up a more just, a more fraternal, mankind, a mankind at peace.

This will be a practical way of showing that "God is Love which saves, a loving Father who wants to see his children look upon one another as brothers and sisters, working responsibly to place their various talents at the service of the common good of the human family. God is the unfailing source of the hope which gives meaning to personal and community life" (Pope Benedict XVI, "Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace", 1 January 2006).