The remarkable Service of Fr. Luis Riuz, SJ
Just three months ago, Fr. Damien, the Apostle of the Lepers, was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI. This heroic priest had devoted a huge part of his life to caring for the lepers of Molokai, the literal outcasts of the state of Hawaii. Now, another priest, despite infirmity and venerable old age, is replicating his work in another part of the world.
Jesuit and Missionary
Fr Luis Ruiz, SJ was born in Asturias in Spain in 1913. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1930. As a Jesuit trainee teacher, one of the pupils in his school in Cuba was Fidel Castro. Eleven years after joining, he was posted as a missionary to China. Although the outbreak of World War II halted his work for a time, full service resumed when the war was over. When communism
gripped China, Fr. Ruiz was imprisoned for a short spell. While in prison, he contracted typhoid, most probably due to the non-existent hygiene standards in which he dwelt while he was incarcerated. He was subsequently expelled from China, and, under the orders of his Provincial, he spent some time in Macau, a Portuguese colony since the sixteenth century, recovering from his illness.
Early Days in Macau
Within a month of his arrival and his somewhat speedy recovery in Macau, Fr. Ruiz began working with refugees, active in sheltering over 30,000 of these persecuted nomads who sought safety in this tiny land on the South China Sea. In the 1970s, Fr. Ruiz began working with the elderly and with young people suffering from mental disabilities. At this time, he opened up five care centres, operated as Caritas Macau. Enlisting the help of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Anne, his empathy towards people with leprosy forced him to reach out to these suffering souls. He offered practical help through treatment within his care facilities. Most importantly, he returned to them their esteem and their dignity as sons and daughters much loved by God. For this work with the lepers of the orient, Fr. Ruiz is much acclaimed. His good work was noted by the health authorities in the other regions around Macau, and they invited him to help with the other leprosaria surrounding Tai Kam. Many of the lepers he loves and serves are without limbs. Some bear ugly wounds that will never heal. Others are blind or have cataracts. The list of ailments the lepers have to endure goes on and on. Nearly all are outcasts who have been abandoned by their own families because of their disease. Apart from their crippling physical deformities, they have the burden of feeling unwanted, ostracised and blamed for the condition that has befallen them. For the lepers who have borne children, the shame of being a product of a leper also has its social shame for the little ones. Fr. Ruiz caters for some of these children by financing their education in schools in other areas where their family background is unknown. Not only is his support to the lepers inspired by his love of God, his financial assistance to the various up-and-running leprosaria for which he was responsible is given generously, and with an open heart inspired by his personal love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As Fr. Ruiz has been quoted as saying, “Nothing is happier than to make people happy”, his life and work is testimony that this man, now at the grand age of ninety-seven, can walk the walk.
Fr. Ruiz doesn’t attribute the success of his mission solely to his own hard work. He has high praise for those who aid him in his mission, particularly the religious sisters. Of these holy women, he says that they have made many things possible. By the mid-1990s, the octogenarian had achieved much – and much more work still needed to be done. His work with the care centres became so overwhelming that he returned the Caritas operation to the diocese of Macau so he could devote more time to working with his beloved victims of leprosy.
Working With HIV/AIDS Sufferers
In 2005, Fr. Ruiz, by then in his nineties, was not about to rest on his laurels. He accepted an offer from the government of the Hunan province in Southern China to set up a centre for those suffering from HIV and the AIDS virus. This disease is often contracted from contaminated medical equipment when poverty-stricken Macau inhabitants sell their own blood to meet their basic human needs. In April of that year, the HIV/AIDS Caring Centre was established in Hongjian on the Upper Yuan River, with the help of the Sisters. Here, doctors who specialise in the treatment of HIV and AIDS visit the centre regularly and are always on call for emergencies. Father Ruiz, along with his Jesuit colleagues and his religious sisters, allows these terminal sufferers, who otherwise would be social outcasts, to live out the remainder of their lives with dignity.
Deus Providebit – God Will Provide
It is remarkable how Fr. Ruiz has never worried about money or the possibility of the lack of it in time to come. “Our Father in heaven has provided for a people in need. I always had to rely on God’s help. I cannot explain otherwise how we managed economically though all the years,” he replied in an interview published in Madonna magazine in 2007. Such reliance on Divine Providence is rarely heard of nowadays, let alone practised. Putting total trust in God has worked for Fr. Ruiz, his sisters, his fellow-Jesuits and the thousands of people whom Fr. Ruiz has served since he first arrived in China and Macau nearly seventy years ago. Apart from capital he receives from the local government agencies in Macau, who provide a little monetary assistance for each patient’s medical expenses, Fr. Ruiz has some friends around the world who contribute to the shortfall that makes his vital work possible. Anybody who would like to contribute financially to the much-needed work being done in Macau can do so through the Jesuits at Ricci Hall, 93
Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong, making sure to mention that the donation is intended for Fr. Luis Ruiz’s work with the lepers and AIDS sufferers in China. The benefactors of this work are always in Fr. Ruiz’s prayers.
Heading for the Century
Age has crept up on Fr. Ruiz. At ninety-seven years of age, his years have forced him to slow down. He uses a hearing aid, suffers from diabetes and, in a most recent film I have seen on his life and work, he regularly needs the aid of a wheelchair to get around. He still smiles and laughs – a lot – particularly when he is with those he has devoted his whole priestly life to helping. Fr. Ruiz is the director of the care organisation he has developed called Casa Ricci Social Services. He is aided by three Jesuits to ensure the work he inspired is continued for a long, long time to come.
Historically, leprosy has affected civilisation for at least 4,000 years. It is often associated with being a biblical disease that only affected people in the time of Jesus. Not so. According to the World Health Organization, the official report from 118 countries records, at the start of 2008, the global registered prevalence of leprosy stood at 212,808 cases. Left untreated, leprosy can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Leprosy (or Hansen’s disease, named after Dr. Armauer Hansen of Norway who discovered that leprosy was caused by a bacterium) causes body parts to become disfigured or auto-amputated as a result of disease symptoms. The long-standing social stigma associated with the advanced form of leprosy still lingers today. Effective treatment for leprosy first appeared in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the disease could be more fully treatable with the introduction of multi-drug therapy over a period of time. Approximately 95% of people are naturally immune from contracting leprosy, so the chances of becoming infected by it are extremely low.