09 May 2013

St. Damien of Molokai


In the year 1840, Joseph De Veuster was born in Belgium, to a large family of farmers and merchants.  This was the future Father Damien.  When his oldest brother entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, his father planned that Joseph should take charge of the family business. Joseph, however, decided to become a religious.  When he was nineteen he entered the novitiate in the same house as his brother. It was there that he took the name of Damien.

In 1863, Damien’s brother was supposed to leave for the mission in the Hawaiian Islands, but he became seriously ill. Since preparations for the voyage had already been made, Damien obtained permission from the Superior General to take his brother's place. He arrived in Honolulu on March 19th, 1864, where he was ordained to the priesthood the following May 21st. He immediately devoted himself as a travelling missionary on the island of Hawaii.

At that time, the Hawaiian Government decided on a very harsh measure which they thought would stop the spread of the dreaded disease of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. It was decided that anyone who contracted this disease would be taken to the neighboring island of Molokai, where they would have to stay for the rest of their lives. The Catholic Church was deeply concerned about these abandoned lepers and the Bishop spoke to the priests about the problem. He didn’t want to send anyone "in the name of obedience," because he knew that whoever went would probably contract the disease. Four of the priests volunteered, and they would take turns visiting and ministering to the lepers. Fr. Damien was the first to leave, and at his own request and that of the lepers, he remained permanently on Molokai.

He brought hope to this place of despair. He became a source of consolation and encouragement for the lepers.  He became their pastor, the doctor of their souls and of their bodies, without any distinction of race or religion. He gave a voice to the voiceless, he built a community where the joy of being together and openness to the love of God gave people new reasons for living.  He saw the beauty and dignity of each person, no matter how deformed and grotesque their outward appearance.

After Father Damien contracted the disease in 1885, he was able to identify completely with them.  He spoke of "we lepers…" Father Damien was, above all, a witness of the love of God for His people. He got his strength from the Eucharist: "It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation..." He said that he was It is there that he found for himself and for others the support and the encouragement, the consolation and the hope, he could, with a deep faith, communicate to the lepers. All that made him "the happiest missionary in the world.”

Fr. Damian served for sixteen years among the lepers, and died on April 15th 1889.
O God, by whose grace thy servant St. Damien of Molokai, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.