Working with lepers
St Francis Xavier was a frequent visitor to a house for lepers when he was in Goa. Now another Jesuit, Fr Luis Ruiz, in spite of his great age, works to alleviate the sufferings of thousands of lepers in mainland China.
Saint Francis Xavier never made it to mainland China, dying within sight of that country on the island of Sancian. But his vision and mission has been realised by many other Jesuits, among them Fr. Luis Ruiz.
Fr. Ruiz, a Spanish Jesuit, has been in China for over sixty years. He spearheads an apostolate to thousands of lepers who must be among the poorest of the world’s poor. The following extract from a report written by one of his colleagues Fr. Peyton, gives a flavour of the needs they are addressing. The year is 2001!
“We were going to a place called Zhenxiong in N.E. Yunan. We came to a village where the teachers let the pupils out of school just to have a look at the strange foreigners going by. About fifteen minutes outside the village we noticed that the path was descending and we realised that we were going down into an enormous hole in the ground. This ‘hole’ was about thousand feet deep and at the bottom it was the size of two football pitches. As we advanced we had to move in single file along a path hewn out of the cliff face. It was scary for two oldies – I was only in my seventies and Fr. Ruiz was then 88, but there was no turning back. Our Chinese guides were in a line behind us and, more importantly, for the lepers waiting down below we were the first outside visitors in 58 years.
At the bottom we saw that there was a huge cave at the bottom of the cliff. As we approached the cave the ‘forgotten’ lepers gathered together, uncertain as to what would happen next. We greeted them warmly, shaking hands all round, as they really were our long lost friends. It was the mystery of God’s grace that had brought us together.
Then, our hosts took us around to see the conditions in which they had been living for more than half a century. Since there was no staircase in the beginning, the first lepers had to be lowered into the hole with ropes. One man remembered that very thing happening to him 53 years earlier when he was just 10 years old. Their houses were made of mud bricks with thatched roofs. Most were falling apart. Inside the walls were black from the little fires they used for cooking and warmth. It gets cold at night and they mentioned the lack of food to give them some warmth lying in their cave huts at the bottom of a hole one thousand feet below ground level … We intend to build a new centre for these people. There will be Sisters to care for the old and the severely handicapped. In this district there are 2000 other lepers and we will care for them in this same centre.”
It was 1986 when Father Luis, today 93 years old, first set out to alleviate the sufferings of lepers in the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong. The lepers had no electricity or running water and their homes were poor and squalid. Since then Father Luis and his groups of Sisters have opened one hundred and forty-five leprosy centres all over China, including a centre for the Zhenxiong lepers described above. They care for over 10,000 patients in all.