10 May 2015

Father Damien, a priest who laid down his life for his friends

Whenever Holy Mother Church considers the petition of the faithful for the beatification or canonization of a son or daughter of the Church, she looks to see, as it were, the reflection of the life of Christ Jesus in the life of the proposed blessed or saint.

Were today not Sunday, we would celebrate the memorial of Saint Joseph Damien de Veuster who spent himself in the service of the lepers on the island of Moloka'i. Even so, the Gospel passage proclaimed on this Sixth Sunday of Easter is reflected - and even refracted - in the life of the Leper Priest.

Jesus says to his disciples today, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). These words of the Good Shepherd have resounded in the hearts and on the lips of many of the Lord's saints, even as they flowed from the pen of Father Damien when, after he contracted leprosy and near the end of his, he wrote to Father Montiton in May of 1886, saying:
This terrible disease - you know when it started - is spreading fearfully, and threatens to make me unable to celebrate Holy Mass; and, as there is no other priest, I will be without Holy Communion and the Holy Sacrament. This deprivation will cost me the most, and will make my position unbearable. It is not the disease or the suffering which discourages me. Far from it - until now - I feel happy and contented, and, if I were given the opportunity of leaving in good health, I would without hesitation say, I will remain here with my lepers for the rest of my life.
When Father Damien first arrived at the Kalaupapa settlement, in his preaching he referred to "we lepers," naming himself among the lepers in a symbolic manner. At the time, he could not have known - though he might have suspected - that he would one day be named among them by others in a physical manner. Nonetheless, he devoted himself completely to the suffering flock entrusted to his care and willingly and gladly laid down his life for his friends in imitation of his Master and Teacher.

Through Father Damien, the Belgian missionary sent to the Sandwich Islands halfway round the earth, "the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power" (Psalm 98:2). Let us then this day, in the words of the entrance antiphon of the Mass for Saint Damien, "rejoice in the Lord for Damien, servant of God and servant of humanity, whose compassionate love and care for the suffering and the forsaken has given him a place among the blessed. Alleluia!"

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