Forgive me for not mentioning Saint Damien de Veuster (+1889) on his memorial yesterday, the ‘leper priest’, who gave his life to the outcasts suffering from the disease on the remote island of Molokai, Hawaii. Born and raised in Holland, the youngest of seven children, Damien followed his brother into the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary.
Leprosy – a disease which goes back to the dawn of history – was thought to be highly infectious (the modern theory is that 95% of humans are immune) and incurable (it can now be cured with multi-drug therapy). So lepers were banished to the outpost, forced more or less to eke out a living for themselves, with minimal outside help.
The bishop asked for priests to volunteer to offer spiritual ministry to the lepers, Damien, a model young priest full of vigour and strength, volunteered for the difficult mission. When his older brother fell, Damien was sent, with the idea that priests would take shifts of a few months each.
But when he arrived, Damien announced to the 816 lepers who then comprised the colony that he would be one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you
Damien fulfilled his promise, ‘living and dying’ with the lepers. He worked tirelessly, both spiritually and physically, doing much of the manual labour, building and maintenance, along with his priestly ministry, Mass, confessions, guidance. He refused to ‘stand on ceremony’, and would eat and drink with them, sharing their pipes and their companionship, almost all aspects of their lives, but leading them higher, giving them hope and dignity and purpose.
Eventually, Father Damien did ‘become one of them’, realizing when he accidentally put his foot into a scalding bath and felt no pain that he had contracted the disease. If anything, his workload even increased, as he now realized his time was more limited, accepting the disease as part of his mission. As he put it: I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work I am perfectly resigned to my lot. …
Father Damien’s fame spread throughout the world even during his lifetime, but not without controversy. When a Presbyterian minister wrote a letter criticizing Damien’s ‘approach’, and that he was a ‘coarse, dirty man’ who contracted leprosy due to ‘carelessness’, none other than fellow Protestant, Robert Louis Stevenson, penned a panegyric of one he saw as a future saint, rather fulsome praise from a Scotch Calvinist to a Catholic priest.
Father Damien died, surrounded by his beloved fellow lepers, a ‘martyr of charity’ on April 15th, 1889 – a day still celebrated as a holiday in Hawaii – beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1995, and canonized on October 11th, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, with his memorial on May 10th.
Truly, he was a good shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep.