N.B.: Were I in Hawaii today, below is the homily I would preach.
The Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary
The 150th Anniversary of the Arrival of Saint Damien of Moloka’i at Honolulu
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: May the Lord give you peace! How my heart longs to be with you today to share with you my aloha and to deliver these words to you in person as you celebrate the arrival of our beloved Makua Kamiano! Since that is not possible given my current level of holiness (the Lord has not seen fit to give me the grace of bilocation) and my present assignment, I hope you will accept these words through the medium of the Internet from one who, in his heart, is a Kama’aina.
It was not until 1889 that Saint Joseph was, at long last, proclaimed the “Patron of the Church.” When he so proclaimed him, Pope Leo XIII explained: “It is, then, natural and worthy that as the Blessed Joseph ministered to all the needs of the family at Nazareth and girt it about with his protection, he should now cover with the cloak of his heavenly patronage and defend the Church of Jesus Christ” (Quamquam Pluries, 3).
As I reflect upon the design of Providence that brought a young Brother Damien – who was himself baptized with the name of Joseph - to the harbor of Honolulu on this very day one hundred and fifty years ago, I cannot help but see the protecting hand of Saint Joseph upon his shoulder. In the Litany of Saint Joseph, the Husband of Mary is invoked under many titles, not the least of which are three invoked successively: “Consolation of the Afflicted;” “Hope of the Sick;” and “Patron of the Dying.” Saint Joseph, I dare say, brought another Joseph safely to the islands who would be for the young Church there, and especially for the lepers, one who would embody these three titles in his life and ministry. In this way, Saint Joseph enlisted the help of one of who bore his name in his heavenly care of the Church (is it mere coincidence that another Joseph, with the surname of Dutton, would arrive to help Father Damien and continue his ministry?).
If we were to explore thoroughly the various ways in which Saint Damien personified these titles of Saint Joseph, we would be here all day (and probably left with a good book). Let it suffice, then, to consider, briefly, a few words spoken by the Leper Priest who, like Joseph, was “a faithful and prudent steward, whom the Lord set over his house” in Kalaupapa (Luke 12:42).
Consolation of the Afflicted
When Father Damien arrived at the leper settlement, the general conditions were both lawless and hellish. The holy priest, then, set about establishing order and routine, seeking above all to embrace his new parishioners whom others had rejected. He sought to console them and - as so often happens - was himself consoled in the process.
He built their houses, brought their water, cultivated their gardens, gave them medicine and bandaged their wounds, and, among many other things, helped them form a band. In short, he brought life and a sense of normalcy back to them and slowly unmade the hell they had made for themselves. As he did so, he said, ““My greatest pleasure is to serve the Lord in his poor children rejected by other people.”
In his solicitude for their physical needs, they recognized his deep love for them and his great desire for their salvation and sanctification. He greatly consoled them when he included himself among them when he said so often, “We lepers,” and when he said, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” It was not long before those under his physical and spiritual care would rightly call him “the father of all of us” (Romans 4:16). In Father Damien, they found the Consolation of the Afflicted.
Hope of the Sick
For many years, Father Damien demonstrated a sincere and heartfelt compassion for his lepers and offered his own sufferings, not altogether unlike their own, in union with theirs. When finally he himself contracted the dread separating sickness, the words he wrote to his brother shortly after arriving at Kalaupapa, which he then meant symbolically, became irrevocably true: “I have become a leper among lepers in order to win them all for Christ. Because of this, when I preach, I usually say ‘We lepers’.”
With the grace of the sacraments and the strength of his preaching, Father Damien instilled the hope of eternal life and of the certainty of the love of God even in the midst of great suffering. As encouraging and edifying as his words were, and the Sacraments he administered, his own sickness confirmed and intensified his witness to hope. As Jesus showed us the power of redemptive suffering, so Father Damien showed the same to his parishioners. “Having no doubts about the true nature of the disease,” he said, “I am calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people. God certainly knows what is best for my sanctification and I gladly repeat: ‘Thy will be done.’”
This confidence in God surely inspired hope in those who were dying and helped them to say with David, “You are my father, my God, the Rock, my Savior” (Psalm 89:27). In Father Damien, they found the Hope of the Sick.
Patron of the Dying
Father Damien spent so much of his time attending the dying that he wrote to his brother, saying, “the cemetery and the hut of the dying are my best meditation books, as well as for the benefit of my own soul as in view of preparing my instructions.” Where so many others found only deformed men and women filled with anguish and pain, Damien saw souls in need of love and comfort, persons with dignity deserving of honor and respect. So it was that he often dug their graves and made their coffins with his own hands.
He was not afraid of the sign of his own mortality with which they confronted him and others, but stayed with them as they passed from this life into the hands of the Father so that, fortified with the Sacraments, they might go and rest with their ancestors in the peace of Christ (cf. II Samuel 7:12). In Father Damien, they found the Patron of the Dying.
At the end of his own life, Father Damien, like Saint Joseph, was found to be a “good and faithful servant” who ministered to all the needs of the family of God at Kalaupapa just as his baptismal namesake did at Nazareth (Matthew 25:23). With Saint Joseph, Saint Damien heard the Lord Jesus call to him, “Come, share your master’s joy” (Matthew 25:23)!
If the Lord Jesus enlists us in his work of calling men and women to repentance and salvation, should it be any wonder if Saint Joseph enlisted Saint Damien in his patronage as Protector of the Universal Church by asking him to wrap his own mantle around Kalaupapa, might Saint Joseph not also seek to enlist you and I?
Some years back, His Holiness Benedict XVI said the greatness of Saint Joseph stands out all the more clearly precisely “because his mission was carried out in the humility and hiddenness of the house of Nazareth. Moreover, God himself, in the person of his Incarnate Son, chose this way and style of life - humility and hiddenness - in his earthly existence (Angelus Address, 19 March 2006).” Saint Joseph teaches us, he went on to say, “to carry out with fidelity, simplicity and modesty the task that Providence has entrusted to us.”
If we seek to live in this way, as imitators of Saint Joseph, he can enlist us, as well, and share with his titles of Consolation of the Afflicted, Hope of the Sick, and Patron of the Dying. Let us, then, seek the intercession of Saint Joseph, that he might teach us how to be good and prudent stewards of what the Lord has entrusted to us so that we might also share in his Master’s joy. Amen.