May 9, 2017

Saint Damien of Molokai, Priest and Missionary

Saint Damien of Molokai

Joseph De Veuster, the future Father Damien, was born at Tremelo in Belgium, January 3rd, 1840. His was a large family and his father was a farmer-merchant. When his oldest brother entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts (called 'Picpus' after the street in Paris where its Generalate was located), his father planned that Joseph should take charge of the family business. Joseph, however, decided to become a religious. At the beginning of 1859 he entered the novitiate at Louvain, in the same house as his brother. There he took the name of Damien.

In 1863, his brother who was to leave for the mission in the Hawaiian Islands, became ill. Since preparations for the voyage had already been made, Damien obtained permission from the Superior General to take his brother's place. He arrived in Honolulu on March 19th, 1864, where he was ordained to the priesthood the following May 21st. He immediately devoted himself, body and soul, to the difficult service of a "country missionary" on the island of Hawaii, the largest in the Hawaiian group.

At that time, the Hawaiian Government decided on a very harsh measure aimed at stopping the spread of "leprosy," the deportation to the neighboring island of Molokai, of all those infected by what was thought to be an incurable disease. The entire mission was concerned about the abandoned "lepers" and the Bishop, Louis Maigret ss.cc., spoke to the priests about the problem. He did not want to send anyone "in the name of obedience," because he knew that such an order meant certain death. Four Brothers volunteered, they would take turns visiting and assisting the "lepers" in their distress. Damien was the first to leave on May 10th, 1873. At his own request, he remained definitively on Molokai.

He brought hope to this hell of despair. He became a source of consolation and encouragement for the lepers, their pastor, the doctor of their souls and of their bodies, without any distinction of race or religion. He gave a voice to the voiceless, he built a community where the joy of being together and openness to the love of God gave people new reasons for living.

After Father Damien contracted the disease in 1885, he was able to identify completely with them: "We lepers." Father Damien was, above all, a witness of the love of God for His people. He got his strength from the Eucharist: "It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength we need in our isolation..." It is there that he found for himself and for others the support and the encouragement, the consolation and the hope, he could, with a deep faith, communicate to the lepers. All that made him "the happiest missionary in the world," a servant of God, and a servant of humanity.

Having contracted "leprosy" himself, Fr. Damien died on April 15th, 1889, having served sixteen years among the lepers. His mortal remains were transferred in 1936 to Belgium. He was interred in the crypt of the church of the Congregation of Sacred Hearts at Louvain. His fame spread to the entire world. In 1938 the process for his beatification was introduced at Malines (Belgium): Pope Paul VI signed the Decree on the "heroicity of his virtues" on July 7th 1977. He was canonized on October 11th, 2009, by Pope Benedict XVI.

In Father Damien, the Church proposes an example to all those who find sense for their life in the Gospel and who wish to bring the Good News to the poor of our time. Father of mercy, who gave us in Saint Damien a shining witness of love for the poorest and most abandoned, grant that, by his intercession, as faithful witnesses of the heart of your Son Jesus, we too may be servants of the most needy and rejected. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Adapted excerpt from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

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