This homily is based on Luke 17:11-19.
There was probably more than one leper who was grateful for this cure. I imagine all ten were thankful to Jesus for their much-awaited, long prayed-for miracle, one that finally released them not only from the ugly marks of leprosy, but also from the just-as-ugly remarks that society flung their way because of their infectious disease.
The point of the story is not that there was just one grateful leper, but that only one remembered Jesus and felt enough gratitude to him to make a U turn to say, “Thank you!” The others were in too much of a rush to resume a normal life. I think the Lord’s message for me here is that it isn’t enough to feel gratitude; we need to exert the effort to express it. It matters, he seems to be telling us. It makes a difference. So what ought we to do when we are grateful?
We Filipinos have a lovely term for gratitude. Aside from “pasasalamat”—which literally means “thanksgiving”—we also say “utang na loob.” A literal translation of it would be “a debt of the heart.” But it’s not like any ordinary debt because you’re not expected to repay this debt. You can’t! Thus we say: “Hindi binabayaran ang utang na loob; ito ay tinatanaw.” You don’t repay a debt of heart; you hold it before your gaze. The root word “tanaw” means to behold something or to keep something constantly before one’s eyes.
To be truly grateful, therefore, is to remember–and to allow the memory to make a difference in one’s life.
Many people who have worked with me find this hard to believe, but many years ago I was an introverted high school student who had difficulty speaking in public. I couldn’t project my voice and didn’t know how to handle microphones. Whenever I auditioned for plays, I always ended up as an extra who had one line (“Dyke’s here, sir!”) which, to the consternation of the rest of the cast, I always still managed to bungle at rehearsals.
I had given up every hope of any form of public speaking or performance and for about a couple of years in high school resorted to full-time speechwriting for my classmate Charlie, who was much more gifted, confident, and comfortable in the limelight. I learned a lot writing for him because he trusted me enough to be willing to say anything I wrote and got away with it because he was that good.
But then one day, a Jesuit priest—a former missionary to China—decided to take me under his wings. We were meeting in his office, and he was encouraging me to take on a leadership position in the student organization that he was moderating. Naturally, I declined, appealing to my shyness and trouble with public speaking. Right there and then, the priest turned into a voice coach and began offering me tips on public speaking.
“You see, in China,” he explained, “we had no sound system in the far-flung villages, so we had to learn to project our voices for the people at the back of the chapel to hear us.”
And then, we were suddenly transported to a Chinese village as he made the sign of the cross and startled me as he bellowed: “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT!”
And then he turned to me: “Your turn. Make the sign of the cross as loud as you can.”
Despite my bewilderment, I did: “In the name…!”
“Louder!” he commanded.
“IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER…”
“You can do better than that,” he told me, then proceeded to sign himself again, this time so loud I began to worry that people outside would hear us. “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, OF THE SON…!”
When he was finished, it was my turn to holler: “IN THE NAME…”
And so it went, each of us taking turns in making the sign of the cross and shouting out the names of the Blessed Trinity. If anyone had walked by outside, I swear they certainly would have suspected an exorcism.
I didn’t magically turn into some kind of orator after that admittedly bizarre impromptu training session, but I remember that Jesuit with much gratitude and consider that conversation with him a significant one. Here was someone who believed in me and actually tried to coach me in voice projection long before I had imagined myself going into anything that would involve any kind of public speaking. Today, over three decades later, I’m an ordained priest who spends most of his days presiding at Mass, teaching, giving talks, conducting seminars, and offering retreats. Almost all my work involves public speaking!
I am grateful and I’m making this U-turn to express my gratitude. I want to say: I’ve always remembered, and look, I’ve allowed the memory to make a the difference in my life–that ordinary but unforgettable afternoon when a wise old priest and a gangly adolescent took turns blessing each other at the top of their voices.