The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
On Saint Joseph Damien de Vuester
Dear brothers and sisters,
“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or the sword” (Romans 8:35)? Even as he asks these questions, Saint Paul gives the answer: “No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
As you wander through the Capitol complex
in Washington, D.C., you will see various statues sent from each of the fifty
States to honor important people in those States’ histories. On Friday, a member
of the House of Representatives singled out one of these statues which she had
the gall to call to claim symbolizes “patriarchy and white supremacist culture.”
That statue was sent by the people of Hawaii and represents Saint Damien of
Molokai; the other statue from Hawaii is of King Kamehameha I the Great, who
united the islands into one kingdom.
Photo: Architect of the Capitol
To defame a man of the stature and quality of Father Damien by inferring him to have harbored racist motivations in his heart is simply inexcusable. Even a cursory reading of his life, of the history of the Hawaiian islands, or even a brief conversation with a Hawaiian, leaves one with a very clear understanding of Father Damien’s one and only motivation that laid at the foundation of his missionary endeavors: “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
My affection for Father Damien, and my devotion to him, are no secret; in fact, he is my favorite Saint and one I consider a dear friend. He was born Joseph DeVeuster in Tremelo, Belgium on 3 January, 1840 and entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts at the age of 19; he took the name Damien, after an early physician and martyr.
His brother, Pamphile, also a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, was to leave for the Hawaiian missions in 1863, but he fell seriously ill and was not strong enough for the journey. Damien – always a bit headstrong - promptly wrote to his superiors asking to take his brother’s place. His offer was accepted and he landed in Honolulu in 1864 and died on Molokai 1889 at the age of 49, having spent himself in the service of God and his people.
Before he left Belgium, Damien wrote to his parents reflecting on the voyage on which he was about to embark: “The sacrifice is great indeed for one who tenderly loves his parents, his family, his brethren, and the land of his birth. But the voice that has called upon us to make a generous sacrifice of all, is the voice of God himself.” He heard the call of the Lord and he knew he had to answer it; he knew, as he said, that “we must choose the state [in life] God has predestined for us, so as to be happy in our next life.”
For nine years he ministered on the Big Island, building churches with his own hands and meeting the spiritual needs of his people. In one letter, he wrote: “Our poor Islanders are always very happy when they see Kamiano coming, and I, for my part, love them very dearly; I would gladly give my life for them.” Do these words sound like those of racist or a bigot, or of someone mired in a white supremacist culture? Of course not! He went on to say, “All things considered, I am very happy, for, along with all the privations and hardships, God often gives me consolations beyond expectations.”
In another letter, Damien wrote these words: “It is [Jesus] Who in the midst of trials, contradictions, and sufferings, will cause us to enjoy a happiness of which he who has never experienced it can form no idea.” His chief aim in life was to lead everyone to such an experience of the love of God, to lead them to the happiness that can only be found in God.
With time, Bishop Maigret became increasingly concerned about the spiritual needs of those who lived in the leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula of the island of Molokai; they were sent there to keep society safe, to be forgotten, and to die. Bishop Maigret, unwillingly to command a priest to go to the settlement – because he knew it would effectively be a death sentence – asked if any of his priests were willing to go; he found four. He decided to have them rotate on a three-month basis, hoping that would keep from contracting the disease. Father Damien agreed to go first and arrived at the colony on 10 May 1873, accompanied by the Bishop. Though the Bishop intended to leave him for there for just three months, Damien would not allow his turn to end, and there he remained, willingly and gladly, where others hesitated to go.
Upon arriving at Molokai, Bishop Maigret gathered the people together and said to them:
So far, my children, you have been left alone and uncared for. But you shall be so no longer. Behold, I have brought you one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that for your welfare and for the state of your immortal souls, he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you!
He had no idea how true his words would prove.
When he first arrived at the leper colony, Damien was not trusted by the Hawaiian people because they; many others had come for a few weeks or a couple of months; what would this new one do? Damien slowly won them over by eating from their same poi bowls, sharing a pipe with them, and learning and speaking their language. When he was sent to the lepers, he was told to stay several feet away from them, not to touch them, or even to eat food prepared by them, lest he, too, contract the dread disease. (The similarities with our own day are clear.) Those who had gone before him followed this advice, but he ignored it from the very beginning; instead, he bent down to touch and embrace the lepers. He would not dismiss the people so heartlessly.
Father Damien once said, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” In these words, he echoes the words of Saint Paul who said that he became “all things to all to save at least some” (I Corinthians 9:22). In doing so Father Damien imitated the love of Christ who gave himself for our salvation. This he did by bringing in a water supply, building their churches and chapels, forming a band, digging their graves and building their coffins, mending their homes and huts, expressing their physical needs to the Board of Health and never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and bandaging their wounds and sores with his own hands. In addition to this, he offered the Mass for them, heard their confessions, witnessed their marriages, assisted them in their last moments in this life, and commended their souls to God.
After sixteen years, he contracted leprosy himself because of his close work with the lepers, and accepted this Cross as a true disciple. He said, “Having no doubts about the true nature of the disease, 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.’” He knew that his sufferings would lead him to grow in holiness if he offered them for his people with the sufferings of Christ.
He found that his “greatest pleasure is to serve the Lord in his poor children rejected by other people.” He devoted all of his efforts to the lepers of Molokai, often ignoring his own needs against the advice of others; he spent himself in their service. He was no racist, no bigot, no white supremacist, as everyone in his own day knew very well. After the Princess Liliuokalani, then Regent of the Kingdom of Hawaii, visit the leper colony to experience the sufferings of her people and to witness and support Father Damien’s ministry, she made him a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua, the highest honor of the Hawaiian Kingdom. She would never bestow such an honor on one who did not love her people; rather, she gave him the highest he could because of his devotion to her people.
|At an altar built by Saint Damien|
Father Damien’s example shines brightly before me, and, by God’s grace and his intercession, I pray that I will be able to imitate his zeal for souls, his tireless dedication, and his acceptance of suffering with both joy and gratitude for the salvation of others.
We might wonder how he was able to serve so faithfully those who were rejected and reviled.
I find my consolation in the one and only companion who will never leave me, that is, our Divine Savior in the Holy Eucharist. . . .It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength necessary in this isolation of ours. Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But, having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content….
Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends… Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.
It is in the Eucharist that the love of God in Christ Jesus is given to us every time we attend the Holy Mass; it is through the Eucharist that “the hand of the Lord feeds us” and through which “he answers all our needs” (cf. Psalm 145:16). Damien knew that, through the Eucharist, he would conquer overwhelmingly; we need to realize this anew in our day.
The Representative’s comments about Father Damien are a stark reminder to us of the importance of voting with our consciences, of the morality of entering into the ballot box. It is not enough to cast a vote for someone who agrees with me on this or that issue; rather, we must elect men and women of proven quality, or proven character, of proven virtue, men and women who understand actual history and the true motivations of the human heart, men and women who make calm decisions and not rash judgments. There is no need to defame those who are most honorable; rather, what we need to do is to imitate such men and women. Simply imagine for a moment how much different our society would be if all imitated even a fraction of the selflessness of Father Damien!
In his own day, Father Damien was frequently insulted by members of the government of Hawaii and of the Board of Health, but he never let their slurs stop or hinder his loving care for those exiled from society. May Saint Damien pray for us, teach us how to be the hands of the Lord answering the needs of others, and remind us that no one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.