On Oct 7, 1860, Damien de Veuster (1840-1889) lay prostrate on the floor as he was covered with a funeral pall as part of the traditional ritual for religious profession for the Belgian religious community, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Thirteen years later, when he responded to the local bishop’s call for volunteers to serve in the leper colonies on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Father Damien came forward and told the bishop: “Remember that I was covered with a funeral pall the day of my religious profession. Here I am, Bishop, ready to bury myself alive with those poor unfortunates.”
In the second half of the 19th century, the Hawaiian Islands quickly had become an important commercial hub and a source of desirable natural resources. There was a huge influx of peoples from different parts of the world who brought with them diseases to which the native people had no natural immunity, including leprosy. The response of local officials to the dreadful illness was to establish a “leper colony” on the island of Molokai in a town called Kalawao. Anyone discovered to have the disease, including children, were detained and sent to Molokai. But the government barely provided the people with any shelter, food, or medicine, and those who were sent there knew that it was essentially a death sentence. Seeing themselves abandoned in such a callous way, the society there quickly broke down and there was widespread immorality. As one writer put it: “Treated like animals, they quickly began to act like animals. Losing all human joys, they feverishly grasped at those of the beasts and subsequently gave themselves over to a sinful life.” As the conditions at Kalawao became more widely-known, the people of Hawaii began requesting help for them. And that’s how Fr. Damien ended up in Molokai.
When he arrived to Kalawao, he immediately began to work to build more shelter for the people who were constantly exposed to the great winds that swept the island from off the Pacific Ocean. He taught them to farm and he began a ministry of burying the dead and providing funeral Masses for them at the little Church of St. Philomena. One of the most difficult things, however, was tending to the physical sufferings of the people. Leprosy ravages the body with disfiguring and foul-smelling sores that, according to Damien, “poisoned the air.” Damien found, however, that all of his “repugnance toward the lepers [had] disappeared” not long after his arrival.
As much as he desired to help the lepers with food and shelter and their medical needs, far more important to Damien than tending to the leprosy of the body was tending to what he called the “leprosy of the soul” with which many of the members of the community suffered. He expressed his spiritual concern for them in various ways: “In one place I speak only gentle, consoling words,” he explained, “in another I have to be harsh, to stir the conscience of some sinner; at times I have to thunder and threaten unrepentant sinners with eternal punishment.” Damien’s corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, burying the dead –were intended to remind the inhabitants of Kalawao of their dignity as creatures made in God’s image. His spiritual works of mercy – instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses – were intended to help the people of Molokai to become holy, to live their lives in accord with their status as children of God, those purchased with the Blood of Christ. And they responded, because they knew he loved them. He had given up everything to be with them and had become their friend. Eventually, he officially joined their ranks, discovering his own leprosy in December 1884, an illness from which he died in 1889 at the age of 49.
The saints reveal the holiness of the Church, which has its source in the holiness of Christ. They are a gift to the world, and to us, because they reveal that holiness in the world is not just possible but also intensely desired by Christ for each of us. It’s true – God wants us to be saints, just like He wanted Fr. Damien to be a saint, because a life of holiness is a life of happiness.
If you’re interested in learning more about St. Damien, whose feast day was yesterday (5/10), I’ve posted below a YouTube video of the terrific film about his life called Molokai.