Archbishop Vlazny of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, was the Bishop of Winona from 1987-1997.
During this Year of the Priest, I have taken advantage of opportunities to write about priests outstanding in their life and ministry whom the church has honored with canonization and/or beatification. On my recent trip to Belgium, I was privileged to celebrate the Eucharist at the tomb of one of these great men, Jozef de Veuster, who received the name of Damien in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Damien was canonized during this Year of the Priest by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009. Celebrating his canonization and visiting his tomb within less than four months prompted me to write about him and showcase his pastoral zeal as an inspiration for the rest of us during these early days of Lent.
In his homily at the Mass of canonization last October, Pope Benedict had this to say about St. Damien: “When he was 23 years old, in 1863, he left Flanders, the land of his birth, to proclaim the Gospel on the other side of the world in the Hawaiian Islands. His missionary activity, which gave him such joy, reached its peak in charity. Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who lived there, abandoned by all. Thus he was exposed to the disease from which they suffered. He felt at home with them. The servant of the Word consequently became a suffering servant, a leper with the lepers, for the last four years of his life.”
All good disciples of Jesus eventually come to the realization that the more self-serving their lives seem to become, the less can they consider themselves friends of Jesus Christ. Young Jozef was born in Belgium back in 1840, the seventh child of his family. His dad was a grain trader and wanted Jozef to take over the business on their farm. But Jozef’s dreams lay elsewhere. His older brother was a priest, and at age 18 St. Damien wanted to be a priest, too. He became a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, also described as the Picpus Fathers. He was sent off as a missionary. On the way he came down with typhus but eventually reached the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) in March of 1864. He became acquainted with the language and the customs of the Hawaiian people and was ordained a priest there in May of the same year.
Damien was no great scholar but he was truly a man of action. In embarking upon his mission to the Hawaiian people he initially regarded them as immoral, uncivilized and overly superstitious people. He traveled extensively in his efforts to convert many of them to Christianity and when asked where he lived, he would point to his horse’s saddle and say “That’s where I live.” St. Damien had a special concern for those who were experiencing great suffering. He was concerned about the mistreatment of the dead, the extensive drinking and gambling among the natives, the abuse of young orphans as well as the extreme prices in the shops. He also felt that lepers deserved better medical care. It was his dream that an ideal Christian community would eventually be established where he would be the father. His concern about the lepers continued to grow. He knew they lived in exile on the volcanic island of Molokai. He told the bishop he wanted to stay among them permanently because he thought this would be the only way he could win the lepers’ trust.
The leper colony was located at Kalawao on Molokai. This location was chosen deliberately because the village was very hard to reach. Because the lepers were placed in quarantine, the village was a kind of natural prison. When the quarantine laws were strengthened, St. Damien himself became an exile and a prisoner of his missionary calling. He was excluded from the outside world just like those whom he served. By January of 1885 Damien wrote, “I am still in good health… except my left foot, which has lost almost all sensation for three years now. It is a hidden poison which threatens my whole body.” He hoped he could get over his sickness or keep it under control, but more and more he would address his parishioners with these words, “We lepers.”
In concluding his reflections on the day of St. Damien’s canonization, Pope Benedict stated, “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.” Every Lent we are called to embrace the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and good works. Many Catholics are generous, but the example of priests like St. Damien challenges us to take to heart the words of our Holy Father which invite us to move beyond the “comfort zones” of our own practical generosity. Certainly we can place some limits on the sharing of our time, treasure and talents, but the season of Lent asks us to re-examine those limits and to see if it might be possible to extend them somewhat, even to the point where they are less than comfortable, maybe even where they hurt.
It was the miraculous healing of a Hawaiian woman with cancer that led to the canonization of St. Damien. He himself died of leprosy at the age of 49. The fame of his life lived among the lepers led to an intensive study of Hansen’s disease (leprosy), which eventually led to a cure. In speaking to the International Theological Commission last December, the Holy Father reminded this learned assembly that, in the history of the church, many men and women who may not have been so scholarly were, on the other hand, capable of the humility that led them to reach the truth about the great mysteries of our faith. He mentioned St. Damien and described him as one of those “little people who are also wise,” from whom we draw inspiration because “they were touched in the depths of their hearts.” Small people like Father Damien often become great saints.
The priests who serve you in our parishes across western Oregon typically attract headlines or prompt letters to the bishop only for their misdeeds, not for their faithful service. They may be “little people” in the eyes of the world, and perhaps in your eyes, too, but every time they touch the depths of any person’s heart, they become great in the eyes of God. As Damien was a leper among lepers, we priests today are sinners among sinners. Please pray for all of us this Lent that, in spite of ourselves, we too will always want to be there for others, not just for ourselves, confident in the mercy of a loving God. The Sentinel, Diocese of Portland, OR