by Jerry Costello
By definition all saints of the Catholic church are holy; that, after all, is how they got there. But a case can be made, I think, that some of them are holier–“saintlier,” if you will–than others. And if that’s so, I’d like to submit the name of Damien of Molokai for special recognition. He’s a hero in my book, and his time was so close to our own that he can serve as a role model for us all.
May 10 is the day that Catholics the world over pay him special tribute, and that’s hardly by accident. For it was on May 10, 1873, that Father Damien came to the fledgling colony of lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for the first time. In the process he not only brought a measure of order to the disorganized band he met there; in time he made the cause of leprosy his own.
The basics of his life are familiar enough. Born in Belgium in 1840, he was ordained a priest for the community of Sacred Heart Fathers and was sent as a missionary to Hawaii, then still an independent kingdom. At first a parish priest on Oahu, he volunteered to serve the all but abandoned lepers of Molokai, eventually regarding them as members of his own family. When he contracted the disease himself, he disclosed it by greeting colony members as “My fellow lepers…” Following his death from leprosy in 1889 at the age of 40, he became recognized everywhere for his sanctity, and ultimately was canonized in 2009.
Reminders of his life abound in Molokai today, as I found during a visit a few years ago. Most of the island consists of the flat plateau known as Topside, but the low-lying peninsula of Kalaupapa–where Father Damien ministered–is lush and green. Visitors can go into the wooden Church of St. Philomena, which Father Damien helped to build, and visit the adjoining cemetery where he would often pray, rosary beads in hand, sure in the knowledge that he would one day join those who lay there. As he once wrote:
“The cemetery, church and presbytery form one enclosure, thus at nighttime I am the sole keeper of this garden of the dead, where my spiritual children lie at rest.”
The Pacific Ocean, a few dozen yards away, is visible through the palms, which move gently in the almost-constant breeze. The scene is one of incredible peace, a marked contrast to all the suffering and dying that lonely spot had seen, and the memory of Father Damien–Saint Damien–is never far away.
My good friend Patrick Downes, editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, once wrote that the priest’s canonization is much more than an honor for Hawaii’s Catholics. “The church doesn’t elevate saints just so we can bask in the glow of someone else’s holiness,” he said. “Rather saints are celebrated as men and women to imitate, as examples to follow.” And then he continued:
“As long as there are those our world chooses to shun, abandon and discard – the sick, the weak, the poor, the elderly, the unborn – others will be needed to step into their lives and embrace them. Damien has shown us how.”
May 10 is the feast day of this good man. It’s a perfect time to remember all that he did for the lepers of Molokai. First of all, he gave them his love. And then, finally, he gave them his life.
[ Courtesy of the Christophers. The Christophers was founded in 1945 with the purpose of using media to encourage individuals to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world, by bringing Gospel values into the mainstream of life. Visit www.christophers.org to learn more about the Christopher Awards. ]
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