Imagine for a moment that you have a long-standing wound. It often haunts your dreams. The memory comes to mind a half-dozen or so times a day. The devastation has gone unhealed and to a certain degree has redefined you.
Maybe an old classmate called you “ugly,” or you failed the seventh grade. Perhaps you were abused, or your mom never hugged you, or rarely even touched you. As time passed by, you felt you weren’t worthy of anyone’s love. Then one day you began to hate yourself.
Suppose a large basin of scalding hot water was mistakenly dropped on you as a 3-year-old. As three layers of your skin, from your ankles to your shoulder blades, began to blister and curl, your mom rushed you to the nearest hospital. But because you lived in a poor town with substandard medical treatment, you weren’t admitted in. As you were sent away, your bodily agony was at its height. The next closest hospital, many miles away, turned you away as well.
Finally, a city hospital in Acapulco, Mexico granted you admittance, but the lapse in time did irreparable damage to three-quarters of your body, which would soon take on a leathery appearance.
The year following the accident, your father leaves your family because he cannot bear the pain, memory, or medical costs. Soon thereafter, your mother leaves for the United States to send money home to your small village in the mountains of Mexico. You are placed into a home with a barely-known uncle. Because walking has become excruciating, you spend most of the day in a wheelchair. You crawl upstairs.
You’ve hidden your scarred body from everyone for the next eight years of your life. On hot summer days, when boys played soccer shirtless or your girlfriends in bathing suits jumped into mountain ponds, you sat watching by yourself, in a full-length skirt. Only your parents, two siblings, uncle, and his small family know of what you’ve come to regard as a gruesome and disfigured body. The eyes looking back at you in mirrors are sad, but you rarely look into mirrors.
Then one day a Catholic priest comes into view. And a feeling rises in you, something you’ve never felt in your 13 years, as you see him walking by himself. You approach him. And you let him into your secret – you tell him everything. Then, for the first time in your life, you show someone who is not your family the burns on your lower legs. Then you explain to the priest that the burns extend to the back of your neck.
“Thank you for sharing this with me,” the priest says. Then there is silence as the priest’s eyes water.
“You know who you remind me of?” the priest asks you.
“Who?” you ask, as your eyes, too, begin to water.
The priest points to a wall, where Jesus is on a crucifix. “You have his scars. And you have his courage, too,” he says. Then both of you begin to cry. Then you laugh because he hands you his handkerchief, then he grabs it back because he needs it, too.
Then the priest becomes deadly serious. And he asks you the most beautiful question.
“I think it’s time to heal now, don’t you. Do you want to heal now, Itzel?”
You know this type of burn never heals, but you also know the priest isn’t speaking about your skin.
“Yes, Padre,” you say. “I want to heal.”
And so the process begins.
Fr. Dan Leary, the chaplain for the Sisters of Mary, has given his life to healing boys and girls like Itzel and 20,000-plus others living in Catholic Boystowns and Girlstowns throughout the world. Relying on the movement of the Spirit through healing Masses, spiritual direction, confessions, and talks, Fr. Dan has walked into a world of children scarred by poverty.
“So often, these kids get a new name after a tragedy,” Fr. Dan said. “This new name is the wrong name, but it sticks. They just need someone to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ They need to know their new name is a lie.
“And then the voice of authority needs to come – ‘Do you want to heal?’ ”