The Christian Witness of Father Damien

This is the time of year when people begin to look forward to their summer vacations.  During tourist season here in Washington, DC, the National Mall becomes a sea of humanity.  Those who visit the U.S. Capitol will find the statues of many important people in our nation’s history, among them Saint Damien de Veuster, a Belgian missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who represents the state of Hawaii.

Those who have visited Hawaii will tell you that it is quite beautiful.  But in the midst of that paradise of islands was once a place that was a hell of despair – the “leper colony” on the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai.  Historically, those who contracted leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease, were banished from their communities, literally treated as “untouchable.”  In the mid-1860s, the Hawaiian government began abandoning the afflicted on Molokai, leaving them without medical treatment, shelter or life-sustaining supplies.  Many people wore rags and were forced to sleep outside, in the elements, on the ground.

Knowing of the wretched conditions there, Father Damien volunteered to go to Molokai to tend to the suffering.  He was not the first priest to go there, but he was the first to stay.  He arrived in 1873 on May 10, which is now his feast day.  At the time, there were more than 600 inhabitants. When he came ashore, Father Damien brought the hope and the love of Christ.

He was not only a priest to them, but he took on the role of doctor and builder as well.  He provided medical care, built homes, established farms, and dug graves.  But more than that, Damien touched them, spiritually and physically.  Told not to touch the residents, he soon overcame any qualms he had and embraced them, literally – he dined with them, he put his arms around them.  Damien also began to identify as one of them, writing to his brother, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say ‘we lepers,’ not, ‘my brethren.’”

Now, the term “leper” has come to be regarded as offensive, inasmuch as it dehumanizes the person, reducing him or her to the disease and an object of repulsion. But that is precisely the point in using it here. The world has historically cast out “lepers” of all types.  But Jesus embraces these outcasts and takes not only their medical hardships but also their persecutions upon himself and he heals them with his love (cf. Mk 1:40-42).  Recognizing the beauty in the disfigured face of our Crucified Lord, Father Damien allowed himself to be a vessel of his love.

Merely to be physically touched, to no longer be untouchable, but to be a person, a person who is loved – this transformed the experience of the residents of Molokai from one of wretched misery to one of hope and the possibility of joy.  When Damien contracted the disease himself after 12 years on Molokai, he declared, “I am calm and resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done.”  He died four years later in 1889.

Few experiences in life are worse than being rejected, outcast, forgotten, unloved, unwanted, uncared for, and marginalized, thrown away like society’s refuse.  We can encounter these wretched poor, these “lepers,” in every corner of society and in every station of life.  But Father Damien teaches us that everyone is uniquely precious and should be embraced and loved by us, even those horribly disfigured, whether it is because of medical disease or social standing or sin.

At the Mass for Father Damien’s canonization, Pope Benedict XVI said of him, “He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.”  And Pope Francis added at his inauguration Mass that our Christian vocation “means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”

The Christian witness of Father Damien encouraged others to join him during his lifetime, including Saint Mother Marianne Cope.  Like the Good Samaritan, Father Damien is an example for us all, encouraging us to join him now, to not simply walk past those broken people lying in a ditch saying “let someone else take care of them, let the government or some charity do it,” but to get involved personally, touching their lives and offering them our compassion and consolation, confidence and hope.  In this way we can transform their lives and the world, by the infinite and merciful love of God, curing them of their despair and allowing them to know the joy of the Risen Christ.