Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blessed Damien

You can't go far in Hawaii without seeing some mention of Fr. Damien these days. In fact, not far from St. Aidan's Mission Chruch, a life size statue of Damien stands in front of the Hawaii Capital, gazing on all passerbys. Hawaii’s patron saint, and perhaps most famous resident, has been in the news due to the Vatican’s decision to elevate his status to that of "saint". Such a rare and beautiful occasion warrants a brief discussion of Damien’s life, and the meaning of "saint".

Damien came from a large Catholic family from Belgium. He and another sibling both decided to enter the priesthood. While in seminary, he fervently prayed before a picture of St. Francis Xavier (the patron saint of mission) that he would become a missionary. Three years later, Damien's prayers were answered. His religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, had a presence in Hawaii and Damien went forward in faith and arrived in Honolulu harbor in 1864. Shortly after, he was ordained priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.

Damien originally began work on the Big Island, but when a series of diseases broke out, including leprosy (Hansen’s disease), and the lepers were sent to the Island of Molokai, he volunteered to join the community. He arrived in 1873, and joined the community of 819 lepers, and on his first night, slept outside under a Pandanus tree. Seventeen years later, he was buried at the same spot, and under the same tree. At Kalaupapa, Damien’s pastoral and administrative gifts flourished. His first act was to build St. Philomina’s parish church, and which still exists today. I have often looked down on it, far above on a nearby wind swept hill. Damien also built up the community, improving the homes where people lived, built schools, and developed the land. Each of these tasks was difficult, and life was not easy there. In addition, Damien tended to his people’s wounds, and often built the coffins his parishioners were later buried in. Few positions other than priest, could have placed him closer to people. Sixteen years into his work, Damien finally succumbed to leprosy and died. He had written earlier to his brother:

"I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ".

Because of Damien's tireless love, and self giving, he is surely one of the great models of holiness and service in today's world.

Just a few words on the term "saints". Clearly, there are certain people in the spiritual life who are able to open themselves in fuller ways than others. And Damien, as well as many of the Celtic saints, were people such as these. We are fortunate to have Damien and others who can guide us along the way. One pitfall, however, is to place these "holy" persons on a pedestal and then project many of our spiritual deficiencies upon them. This need not be so. We need to remember that they were human beings like us as well. We can and should use these people as our guides and to inspire us to greater holiness and acts of charity. And, in learning about their lives, we may learn a principle or holy habit which can also enhance our spiritual lives. For instance in Damien, we can learn the importance of persistence in one’s prayers. And not vague prayers, but specific prayers. In so doing, we are reminded that we are all "saints" in God’s eyes. Blessed Damien. Blessed you. Blessed me. Blessed be.

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