The recent canonization of Saint Damien of Molokai and Saint Jeanne Jugan (Sister Mary of the Cross) gives us the opportunity to reflect on their lives and example this week and next week.
The missionary spirit
The command of Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) always includes the command of charity in which Jesus tells us that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In the life of Jozef DeVeuster (1840-1889), who took the religious name of Damien when he entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, we see a marvelous example of missionary zeal and heroic charity toward those who were certainly considered the “least” in his day.
During the years of his studies for the priesthood, Damien prayed daily before an image of Saint Francis Xavier, who is the patron saint of the missions, that he also might become a missionary. His wish was fulfilled when he was sent to the missions of his Congregation in Hawaii, in place of his brother, also a priest, who had become ill and unable to take up that assignment. Shortly after his arrival in Hawaii, he was ordained a priest on May 21, 1864.
We know a great deal more today about immunity to disease than was known in past centuries. As we all know, even with our high degree of technological knowledge, diseases still spread and are introduced from one part of the world to another.
In the past, when explorers and tradespeople went to lands that were new for them, often they did not realize that they were also introducing diseases for which the native people had acquired no immunity. This had occurred in the Hawaiian islands. Traders had unwittingly introduced a number of diseases to the islands which the people had no means of resisting. One of these was leprosy.
As a well-meant means of containing the disease and halting its spread, the King of Hawaii ordered those afflicted with leprosy to be brought to a remote part of one of the Hawaiian islands called Molokai. Although the intention of the Hawaiian government was not to abandon or starve these poor people afflicted with leprosy, their circumstances caused the lepers quickly to be reduced to living in terrible conditions. There was a complete breakdown of law and order and the desolation and despair felt by the lepers caused them to sink into a morass of drunkenness and immorality.
The local Superior of the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts who had missions in the Hawaiian islands wanted to help these poor people but, because of the nature of the situation, he asked for volunteers from among his Religious, rather than assigning anyone to Molokai under obedience. Four of the Religious volunteered, among them was Father Damien, who was chosen for this assignment.
Father Damien begins his work
As is often the case with missionaries, Father Damien found himself confronted not only with the spiritual needs of the lepers of Molokai but also their material needs. He immediately began to address both of these. He brought sanitation, order and cleanliness to the inhabitants and attempted to restore a sense of their own dignity to them. He organized the building of houses and a hospital and helped with the work himself. He dug graves and helped to bury the dead with his own hands.
We can only imagine the natural repulsion he must have felt to the sights and smells he encountered as he went about his work. As a member of a Religious Congregation, he would have normally lived in community, with the support that religious life in common brings to each of its members. However, Father Damien was alone in his mission. While I was in the service of the Holy See and assigned to Madagascar, I recall so well visiting the leprosaria there and admiring the heroic charity of the women Religious who took such loving care of those who are still afflicted with this terrible disease today.
Eventually, Father Damien discovered that he had contracted leprosy himself. Here is what Pope Benedict XVI said about Father Damien in his Homily at the Mass of Canonization: “His missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who lived there, abandoned by all. Thus he was exposed to the disease from which they suffered. He felt at home with them. The servant of the Word consequently became a suffering servant, a leper with the lepers, for the last four years of his life. In order to follow Christ, Father Damien not only left his homeland but also risked his health: therefore as the word of Jesus proclaimed to us in today’s Gospel says, he received eternal life (cf. Mark 10: 30). Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in Saint Paul’s footsteps, Saint Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Timothy 1:18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity” (11 October 2009).
Lessons from Father Damien’s life
The Church always presents the saints to us as models to be imitated as well as heroes to be honored. What lessons do we learn from the life of Father Damien, who lived out his Christian vocation in circumstances which seem so different from ours? The first lesson is that his circumstances were really not all that different.
All around us, we see individuals who are looked upon as having little worth. Likewise, we see the results of human despair and a lack of recognition of one’s own dignity and the dignity of others. The message of Jesus has a “holistic” characteristic. It certainly has as its goal our eternal salvation and that of our neighbor, but since God the Son became flesh and “a man like us in all things but sin,” His message affects the entire person. This is why it brings peace and joy to those who believe in it and this affects not only individuals but families, homes and nations. This is the message of the Kingship of Christ, whose liturgical solemnity we will soon be celebrating and it is the message which brought Father Damien to Molokai.
We must never forget that Father Damien was not just a humanitarian. This is underlined by a woman of our own time who also worked with those who are most abandoned and whose dignity is not always easily recognized: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Whenever she was praised or honored for her work, she was always quick to point out that she did what she did not because she was a humanitarian, but because she was a Christian. Just as she took the most abandoned from the gutters where they were dying and cared for them with love, so Father Damien did for the lepers of Molokai. Both of them did this because they saw Jesus Himself in those whom they were serving.
While all of us should meditate on Father Damien’s selflessness and Christian charity and find ways to imitate it according to our own vocation, at this time I would like to appeal in a special way to our young people. The young love adventure! They also have a great generosity of heart when they are confronted with a cause which they think is worthwhile. What a great adventure we find in the Christian heroism of Father Damien!
I appeal to our young men and women to listen to the invitation of Jesus to serve Him and follow Him intimately, especially in service to those who are most in need. Give yourselves to Him generously and do not be afraid because, as our Holy Father said at the beginning of His pontificate, echoing Pope John Paul II: “I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life” (Homily, 24 April 2005).
Saint Damien, pray for us and give us generous hearts after the Heart of Jesus!