15 April 2020

Pondering Saint Damien and the Pandemic

Detail, stained glass window
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace
Honolulu, Hawaii
From the moment I first encountered Saint Joseph Damien de Veuster, SS.CC, he supplanted Saint Francis of Assisi as my favorite Saint. This, of course, is not to diminish the role of the Poverello in my spiritual journey as one of my favorite guides, but is to say instead that something in Father Damien reached more deeply into my soul than did Saint Francis; precisely why that was or what it was that spoke so clearly to me is difficult to say.

At any rate, Father Damien died on this day in the year in 1889, after ministering to the patients with Hansen’s Disease (then called leprosy) on the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the island of Molokai. He was that royal soul, to borrow a phrase from Walter Murray Gibson who answered the call of King David Kalakaua who sought ministers and doctors to attend his subjects suffering from the separating sickness, a call equally supported by Bishop Louis Maigret. Father Damien - at the age of 33 - volunteered to be one of four priests who would each spend three months in the settlement on an annual rotation. Once he arrived on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, Father Damien intended to stay, and stay he did, for the rest of his life.

After eleven years in the settlement, Father Damien contracted the disease that everyone feared, the disease he knew so very well after attending to his parishioners’ every need with such generous and heroic love. He died five years later, having spent sixteen years of his life among those cast out by the rest of society. Not for nothing was he hailed as the Hero of Molokai; he stayed when so many others abandoned those most in need.

In this time of pandemic, I cannot help but ask myself what Father Damien would do today. His Bishop sought volunteers to go and minister among the very ill, and he did not think twice about it; he offered his life and said, “I would gladly give my life for them. I do not spare myself when it is necessary to go on a sick call that takes me twenty to twenty-five miles away.” In the end, he did give his life for them and fulfilled what he said when he first met them: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Reflecting on his example, I cannot help but wonder what we priests ought to be doing today. We today are told by our superiors - who have to had make incredibly difficult decisions which have rent their hearts - to minister when possible, keeping to specific guidelines issued by the medical professionals and the civic government. All of this is done out of great concern for the common good and is a clear expression of Christian charity.

Father Damien was told something similar, and very quickly ignored such precautions so as to take on, as Pope has said, “the smell of the sheep;” he expressed Christian charity from a different angle, which was quite controversial in his own day because he violated the clear instruction of his Bishop and orders of the royal government.

Now, do not take me wrongly; in no way whatever am I suggesting being disobedient to the Bishops or to the civil authorities. Nor am I suggesting that we priests are all called to heroic virtue. Nor am I suggesting even that I am called to heroic virtue. Father Damien clearly was and he ministered accordingly, with great success and love. How is it that we priests today are called to minister? The best we can do, I think, is to keep to the instructions those placed over us by the Lord have issued.

At the moment, effectively separated from my flocks (I am Pastor of two different Parishes), I feel a bit restless as I - like everyone else - seek to determine the best way to respond in the present situation to the needs of my parishioners. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can gather again with them around the altar of the Lord.

Whether what I have said above makes any sense or not, I do not know; it is difficult to adequately express my feelings, because I do not fully grasp them yet myself, even after struggling with them these past many weeks.

Still, I cannot help but return to these wise words of Father Damien: “We must all die... So let us begin from this day to prepare for a happy death. Let us not lose a moment of the little time we still have to live.” Through the intercession of this heroic priest, may the Lord guide each of us in the days ahead until we sing with Father Damien the praises of God.

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