The recommendation for sainthood for the Belgium-born Joseph de Veuster, who took on the name Father Damien on his ordination to the priesthood, was approved earlier this week by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. "At that point we will have to wait, with patience and prudence for the Vatican's communication about the Holy Father's action with regard to this document," according to an e-mail sent yesterday from Rome by the Rev. Ed Popish of Damien's international order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. Representatives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and the order said they do not expect Damien's official canonization ceremony in Vatican City, called a consistory, to occur until mid to late 2009. Typically, two or three people are canonized each year by the pope.
The ceremony will likely be scheduled when the Congregation for the Causes of Saints sets the date in February, said diocesan spokesman Patrick Downes. "In light of the fact that the canonization seems imminent, I have already been working with the Diocesan Father Damien/Mother Marianne Commission, which I founded to promote their causes for sainthood, in planning for both local celebrations and pilgrimages and for a pilgrimage to Rome and Belgium," wrote Bishop Larry Silva of the diocese in an e-mail Wednesday. Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, a Franciscan nun who served patients at Kalaupapa, also awaits canonization. Despite the additional wait, Hawaii Catholics were buoyed by the news of the man who gave his life to care for the once-ostracized Hansen's disease, or leprosy, patients and serves as an inspiration for compassion to people across the globe. "It's an exciting thought that finally Father Damien will be given praise for giving comfort to those who were treated as the dreck of society," said the Very Rev. Christopher Keahi, who is the superior of the Hawaii province of Damien's order. Keahi said the recognition is a tremendous step for the faithful of Hawai'i. Now that Damien will be raised to the rank of sainthood, Keahi said, Catholics will understand that it is not impossible and all can aspire to holiness. Damien's order and admirers have pushed for his sainthood since he died in 1889 at age 49. He had contracted leprosy while serving the sick and exiled people of the colony on the remote north coast peninsula on Molokai.
Kalaupapa remains home to 14 leprosy patients, all cured but scarred by the disease, and is a National Historic Park. It is also home to the church that the former carpenter helped build, St. Philomena, which stands next to Damien's lei-draped grave. His remains were exhumed for reburial in Belgium, but a relic, his right hand, was returned to the remote site to be buried next to the church in 1995. "It's been a long time coming that he will be recognized by the universal church," Downes said. "Now, there will be a St. Damien Day put on the church calendar. . . . It's a great honor, not only for the Catholic Church in Hawaii but for the people of Hawai'i and particularly for the Hansen's patients who still live in Kalaupapa and are a living legacy to the charity of Blessed Damien." While known through his life and death as Father Damien, his Catholic title was raised to Blessed Damien when he was beatified with the first determination of a miracle attributed to his intervention. Although the people of Kalaupapa suffered, it was a place that has always inspired hope as well, said state Sen. J. Kalani English in a statement. English, whose 6th District includes Kalawao County and the Kalaupapa settlement, is among those working to get the state to issue a formal apology to the 8,000 patients who were forced to live and die on Kalaupapa and create a monument to them. "To think that a saint walked among the humble residents of Kalaupapa and eased their burdens is deeply moving and a reminder that we never know who among us will have the power to change the world," English said.
Damien may have been born in Europe as Joseph de Veuster, but it was here that he became a hero, Downes said. He lived with Native Hawaiians, learned the language, ate the food, cared for the sick and injured, and built homes. Damien fought to improve conditions at Kalaupapa through his order and patronage and was diagnosed with leprosy five years before his death. Pope John Paul II beatified Damien in Brussels in 1995. Gloria Marks, 70, attended the ceremony and received communion from the pope. She said this time she will only make a trip to Honolulu for a planned celebration there. The road to sainthood has been very complicated and demanded that two miracles be attributed to Damien. Church authorities first determined that Damien had been responsible for a miracle dating to 1895, leading to his beatification a century later. In that case, a French nun dying of a gastrointestinal illness reportedly experienced a miraculous recovery after beginning a novena to Damien before slipping into unconsciousness. Then, this summer, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, composed of bishops and cardinals, approved the second miracle that was previously supported by a panel of theologians and a five-doctor Vatican commission. The church determined that a Honolulu woman's healing of terminal lung cancer defied medical explanation. Audrey Toguchi was cured in 1999 after she made a pilgrimage to Kalaupapa and prayed to the priest. She attributed the healing to the intercession of Damien. The case was written up by her doctor, Walter Chang, in the Hawaii Medical Journal in 2000 in an article about complete spontaneous regression of cancer. Chang also encouraged her to report her recovery to the church.
Interest in Damien has steadily grown since his beatification, Molokai residents said. Molokai Mule Ride brings tour groups six days a week down the 1,600-foot cliff to visit Kalaupapa. Noah John Horner, operations manager for the company, said mounting interest in Damien can also be attributed to recent books and movies produced about his life. "We're sold out for the next seven days," Horner said. "A lot of Catholics are trying to come out here." Federal law limits the number of visitors to the park to 100 per day, a limit based on patients' preferences to maintain their quiet, private lives. "It's a big deal," Downes said. "Hawai'i has its own saint now. I don't think Montana has its saint yet."
Steps to Sainthood
According to the Roman Catholic Church, steps to sainthood were finalized in 1588. Pope John Paul II in 1983 promulgated the canon norms:
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