Imagine an island, shaped vaguely like a shark, rising from the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The center reveals a massive crater, some 300,000 years old — the result of an underwater volcano. To the west of the crater, huddled up against the shoreline, buffeted by water and wind, there are clear signs of human establishments. In fact, humans have lived on this section of island since about 650 years after Christ was born, determinedly carving out lives from sea and mountain and forest.
This island is called Molokai, in the state of Hawaii, and this small western section of dorsal fin was witness to an astounding outpouring of God’s love and inclusion and sacrifice.
In the narrative of Salvation history, we understand that God specifically selected, nurtured, and prepared the tribes of Israel for the Incarnation. The Passover, with the blood of the lamb saving the people from death, was a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. The Arc of the Covenant, which contained relics of the priesthood, the Law, and the bread of Heaven, was a glimpse of what God would accomplish with Our Lady’s fiat. Even leprosy, the bodily ailment that filled ancient Israel with such fear and loathing, resulting in total exile of the afflicted, was meant to prepare us for the coming of Christ.
To the ancient Israelites, leprosy was a graphic demonstration of the destruction and loathsomeness of sin. Nothing unclean shall ever enter the presence of the Lord, and the various illnesses that were called “leprosy” in the Old Testament were tangible allegories of the horror of human transgressions. This is what makes Christ’s interaction with, and healing of lepers so heart-breakingly powerful. Here was God Himself, fully immersed in the stream of humanity, physically touching our sinful nature, and unflinchingly healing us. This is a love that is beyond our comprehension, but a love that we were created to absorb and reflect back into the world.
Fr. Damien De Veuster, whose feast we celebrate on May 10th reflected that sacrificial love into a place of fearful darkness. Born in Belgium in 1840, Damien followed in his older brother’s footsteps and became a priest with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a missionary-minded order.
Earnestly desiring to be sent on a mission, Fr. Damien would stand in front of a picture of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries, and pray daily. His prayer seemed unlikely to manifest though, as Damien’s superiors felt the young man lacked the proper education for such a calling.
Undeterred, Damien learned Latin from his older brother, studied diligently, and never gave up hope. Eventually, Providence stepped in, as Fr. Damien took his brother’s place on a mission to Hawaii, as the latter had become too ill to attend himself.
In 1865, Fr. Damien was assigned to a parish on the big island of Hawaii. He soon noted that an alarming number of his parishioners were falling victim to leprosy, and being shipped off to Kaluapapa, the government instituted quarantine colony on the island of Molokai. As the number of quarantined Catholics grew, the local bishop realized the presence of a priest would be needed. As there was no cure for leprosy at the time, the assignment would be a death sentence.
Not wanting to condemn someone in the name of obedience, the bishop instead asked for volunteers from the Sacred Hearts missionaries, explaining both the plight of the infected as well as the danger to the priests. Every single one of the missionaries volunteered to go. Ultimately, four priests were selected, with a plan in place to rotate every few weeks. Fr. Damien was first to head out.
What greeted the young priest was a grim outpost, lacking in basic amenities, sanitation, and resources. Supplies came from the main island only once a year, and, due to budget constraints, were scant at best. There was no potable water easily available, most of the residents lived in caves or flimsy stick shelters, and medical services were nearly non-existent. The residents had done what they could, but the nature of leprosy meant physical labor was difficult, and as quarantine patients, they had little agency to affect change at higher levels.
Within two weeks, Fr. Damien notified his bishop that it would be unnecessary to send the other priests. He would remain on the island with the residents of Kaluapapa, working with and for them, serving both spiritual and physical needs. He introduced himself to the residents of the colony as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you”. True to his word, Fr. Damien worked tirelessly, renovating and expanding the local parish of St. Philomena, building housing, a hospital, orphanages and schools. He tended to the painful skin lesions of his fellow islanders with his own hands, and with those same hands, built them coffins when the disease took them.
Fr. Damien not only tended to the spiritual and physical needs of the residents of Kaluapapa, but as news of his work spread, donations poured in from around the world, helping to ensure a more secure future for the colony.
Father Damien’s own future was brought into sharp and limited focus one day, eleven years after coming to Kaluapapa. While drawing a bath, the priest put his feet into scalding hot water and felt nothing, even while his skin immediately blistered. Realizing that this meant he had contracted leprosy, the good priest responded by working even harder tending to the eternal and temporal needs of his friends. As death approached, Fr. Damien made a general confession, and passed into eternal life on April 15, 1889. The entire population of the Kaluapapa leper colony attended his funeral, and he was laid to rest under the trees he spent his first nights in Molokai.
Father Damien, who reflected the sacrificial love of Christ so clearly, can help us recognize the dignity of the sick and dying. In a world that rushes ever more determinedly to strip the humanity from the rejected and marginalized, St. Damien shows us what it is to be a brother and servant to those who the culture wants to consume.