19 March 2014

A blessed anniversary: Saint Joseph and Saint Damien

When in 1863 a certain member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar fell ill with typhus, it became clear that he would not be able to undertake his planned missionary voyage. As he shared his disappointment with his brother, who had followed him into the religious life, his younger brother resolved to undertake the mission himself in his brother's stead.

Though his superiors thought he was being reckless because he had not been ordained a priest of Jesus Christ, they consented to his request and made arrangements for him to set sail on the R. M. Wood, which flew the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, then under the rule of King Kamehameha IV (who was born John 'Iolani Liholiho). The ship set sail on October 29, 1863.

Taken just before he sailed for Hawaii
The younger brother, who in religious life took the Damien, knew what dangers lay before him. "We are ready to embark," he said, "on a sea that is often stormy and ready to swallow us." Even so, he remained undaunted:
But it is Jesus Christ who preserves His missionaries from all dangers, who commands the winds to be still, the sea to be calm, wild beasts to flee, spiritual enemies, the demons, the world, and the flesh to leave us in peace. It is He who will make us enjoy unsuspected happiness in the midst of tribulations, sufferings, and contradictions.
He would have had then no way to know how true his words would prove.

As the ship made its way across the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, everyone on board recognized something remarkable about the young Brother Damien, who at the time was just twenty-three years of age.

Throughout the voyage Brother Damien proved of invaluable service to the superior, Father Chretien Willemsen, who was prone to seasickness. It was Father Chretien who remarked of Damien, "That boy's zeal is contagious!"

The long journey aboard the R. M. Wood was not always easy as it encountered several storms along the way, but at long last, on March 17, 1864, the cry of "Land ahead!" rang throughout the ship as it sailed by the islands of Maui and Moloka'i. On March 19th, at 9:00 p.m., the R. M. Wood rounded Le'ahi (a.k.a. Diamond Head) and approached the harbor of Honolulu where the Aloha Tower now stands. When Brother Damien arrived, he joined forty other missionaries of the Sacred Hearts; soon he would overshadow them all with his zeal.

The date of his arrival is, I suspect, no mere coincidence. Then, as now, Holy Mother Church celebrates on March 19th the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary. Before taking his religious name of Damien, he was baptized under the name of Josef.

In the Litany of Saint Joseph, the Husband of Mary is invoked under his titles, among others, as "Consolation of the afflicted," "Hope of the sick," and "Hope Patron of the dying." In the man who would become the Leper Priest, Saint Joseph guided a son of the Sacred Hearts, another Joseph, who would embody each of these three titles in his ministry at Kalaupapa. By vouchsafing Saint Damien, Saint Joseph continued his great work as Protector of Holy Church.

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