Donning a black fishing hat and red sweater, Father Aloisius Gutheinz looked like a typical grandfather repeating tales of his fishing expeditions back in the good old days.
But instead, the silver-haired man with a permanent smile across his face throughout his two-hour interview with the Taipei Times had a far more sober tale to tell about the lives of leprosy sufferers in Taiwan.
Founder of the Chinese Leprosy Service (CLS), Gutheinz, also know as Father Gu Han-song (谷寒松), said during his 30-year association with those afflicted with the degenerative condition, not once did he fear catching the disease that often leaves its victims deformed.
“Don’t ever say that leprosy is a punishment. These people are human beings who are equally valued in the eyes of God,” he said.
Gutheinz said that God created an imperfect world, “so we can have a chance to learn how to love the way God loves. We wouldn’t have to the chance to love different type of people if the world was perfect.”
But even Gutheinz, who answered the call to become a priest when he was a high school sophomore, had to wrangle with his share of struggles when he first met people with leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, in September 1975, 14 years after he arrived in Taiwan.
“An Italian father took me to visit a place called Yi-yuan (怡園). I had no idea what it was before I went there. When I got there, I saw 12 people [burdened] with two heavy illnesses. One was leprosy and the other was mental illness. I trembled when I saw that,” he said, describing the feeling of injustice and frustration he felt.
Kneeling inside a chapel, Gutheinz said he cried in supplication to God as an attempt to find an answer to justify the utter despair he witnessed.
“I said to God, you cannot permit this Lord. I am against it. I cannot agree with it,” he said. “Half an hour later, peace swelled up from the depth of my heart and I heard God say to me in Chinese, Father Gu, you go ahead and do you what you need to do for the lepers and I will take care of the rest.”
Describing that moment in the chapel as his third vocation in life, Gutheinz said from then on, he had neither fears nor doubts that he was to serve those suffering from the disease.
Working closely with people battling with leprosy is not what Gutheinz had in mind as a career when growing up in Europe.
Born in 1933 in a small Austrian town near the Alps, the future Jesuit priest aspired to become a surgeon or a French Horn player.
One day, a Catholic priest approached him and his father while the pair were fixing the family fence. The priest asked his father if he would allow his second son to study to enter the Church.
“My father was so taken back,” he said, but he left the decision for his son to make, a gesture Gutheinz said he was grateful for.
Retreating to his safe place — a nearby chapel — the young Gutheinz sought clarity from God on what he should do. The next day, he told his family that he wished to enter a seminary. With the full blessing of his family, Gutheinz eventually entered the Society of Jesus and began his lifelong work.
Gutheinz recalled that when his mother received the news that her son was heading to China on his mission, her only fear was that he would not be able to tell the locals apart because “all Chinese look so much alike,” he said with a chuckle.