When I read this morning that Father Damien De Veuster, currently beatified, would be canonized on October 11th, I was completely overjoyed. Father Damien, as so many of his devotees refer to him, is one of my favorite saints and a man whose faith was tested in ways that we simply cannot imagine.Father Damien was born into a pious family in Belgium. Damien’s father wanted him to continue in the family business and become a grain merchant. However, Damien felt the first stirrings of a religious vocation. His older brother, Pamphile, had become a priest with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers), who were renowned for their work in the missions. Father Pamphile eventually persuaded his brother to join him at the major seminary to which their parents reluctantly agreed.
Father Damien was not a remarkable student at the seminary. His superiors didn’t think that he was anything special. During Father Damien’s diaconal year, the bishop of Hawaii called on his confreres in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts to send him a number of missionaries to help him. At this time, Hawaii was still a kingdom and the Picpus fathers were some of the earliest missionaries there. Among their work at this time was the foundation and building of schools.
Father Pamphile had volunteered to go to the missions, but an illness overtook him that prevented him from leaving. Without a second thought, his younger brother turned around and told him that he would go in his place. The general of the congregation accepted this arrangement and ordained Damien a priest before his departure for Hawaii.
Father Damien’s earliest work in Hawaii was as a parish priest on the isolated island of Molokai. There were several mission stations on the island and Father Damien as well as another priest were placed in charge of these. Some two years after his arrival, however, Father Damien was sent to minister to the leper colony at Kalaupapa. It was in this most unexpected of places that Father Damien would become a saint.
Leprosy was a relatively new disease in Hawaii. During the early 1800s, the disease had arrived through various European traders. The Hawaiian government was alarmed by the disease and forcibly removed many of its infected subjects to the colony at Kalaupapa. This colony was located in one of the most isolated parts of the island. Few people ever went there and everybody knew that if one was sent to Kalaupapa that it would be a death sentence.
At this mission station, the natives lived in an almost barbaric manner. Due to the ravages of the disease, many of them lived in broken down houses that could not easily be repaired. The local parish church was in a run down state, while the moral state of Father Damien’s flock would have sent weaker willed priests running for the hills.
When Father Damien all of these conditions, he was not afraid. Rather, he began strenuously exerting himself on behalf of his flock. He preached against the polygamy that was so acceptable to the Hawaiian natives. He built a new church out of stone and created an orphanage for those children that were deprived of their parents. He taught catechism classes and ran the local school. If there was somebody that was sick or dying, Father Damien would always rush to his or her side to administer the Last Sacraments. No sacrifice was too great for Father Damien and not one person was left uncared for at the Kalaupapa colony.
Yet Father Damien also had many heavy crosses while he was ministering on Molokai. Perhaps, the heaviest for him was loneliness. Since Father Damien had been sent to work among the lepers, it was not possible for the bishop or his superiors to send him a companion. The superiors were afraid that Father Damien’s assistant would also be infected with leprosy. Even though Father Damien begged his superiors over and over to send someone to help him, no help arrived. For the most part, except for a couple of years here and there, Father Damien was alone.
Even worse than the loneliness, however, was the distrust of Father Damien’s superiors. Once Father Damien’s work became well known around the world, people of different Christian denominations began to send him money for the school, the orphanage, and the maintenance of the lepers. The money was sent directly to the headquarters of Father Damien’s congregation in Paris and then forwarded to Hawaii. Due to their suspicions of the various non-Catholic benefactors, however, Father Damien’s superiors refused to send him the money.
Month after month and year after year, Father Damien would write letters to his superiors for money. It was desperately needed in a place that was so poor and where everything needed to be repaired. Eventually, the superiors sent Father Damien some of the funds that they had received from abroad. Yet when Father Damien complained that it wasn’t enough, he was told that he would have to be satisfied with what he received.
In many ways, Father Damien’s leprosy was the crown of martyrdom that had been waiting for him when he had arrived at Kalaupapa. During the last years of his life, Father Damien became a living wound like many of the people that he had served so lovingly for so long. In his state, he continued to minister as much as he could until he became too sick. Then, his superiors sent another priest to administer the Sacraments to the leper colony.
Even though he was at death’s door, however, Father Damien was consoled during his final years. A group of Franciscan sisters led by Mother Marianne Kop had arrived on the island to help Father Damien run the orphanage. A former American Union soldier named Brother Joseph came and helped Father Damien to run the parish.
When Father Damien died in 1889, many of his lepers believed that he had been a saint. A picture taken of him during his final years was printed in many different newspapers around the world. The life of Father Damien became a cause celebre not only in the wider world, but almost among scientists who carefully examined his cause in order to determine the causes of leprosy and how it could be prevented.
Father Damien has been to me a model of what a priest should be. In his particular circumstances, Father Damien did much more than what most would have done. As a priest, he was obligated to care for his flock and that is exactly what he did. Despite the heavy crosses that Father Damien received from Our Lord, he was able to remain faithful to the end and to sacrifice himself over and over again for those who needed him the most.
As a missionary, Father Damien teaches us how to look at those around us who are suffering. As I mentioned in an article yesterday, the love of Christ impels us to love one another and to pray for one another. Father Damien did much more than this. He was willing to live out Our Lord’s famous worlds that “no man has greater love than he who would lay down his life for his friends.” That is exactly what Father Damien did.
In our own days, Father Damien is an excellent role model in how we should live our lives. While we may not be sent to minister to the lepers, there are people out there who really need our encouragement and love. Whether they be a homeless person at the bus station or a woman going to a food bank because she cannot afford to feed her children, all of these people deserve our love and care. If they ask us for help, we cannot refuse for they are the lepers that we have been sent to help and evangelize.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
Blessed Damien De Veuster of Molokai, pray for us!