Friday, October 2, 2009

DAMIEN’S SECRET

The canonization of St Damien, the apostle of the lepers, in St Peter’s Square in Rome on October 11 next will be of more than passing interest to many people in Ireland, not least the priests, sisters and brothers of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts (SS.CC.), the religious family to which the new saint belongs..

“A humble scene in a backward place/Where no one important ever looked” is how Patrick Kavanagh describes a locale in one of his poems. It is an apt description of an isolated spot called Kalaupapa on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands where a 33-year-old priest volunteered to serve people suffering from leprosy – now known as Hansen’s disease – who had first been quarantined and then expelled to this lonely outpost. The leper settlement there has been described as “a suburb of hell”. There was no law or order in the place and a constant shortage of supplies, medical treatment and food. Housing for the suffering was totally lacking. These poor people had been totally abandoned.

It was here that the priest who will be canonised on October 11 next worked for 16 years, alone and unaided for more than a decade of those years. He cleaned and bandaged wounds, amputated gangrenous limbs, built more that three hundred simple homes, erected 8 churches and chapels, laid a pipeline to bring fresh water to the settlement, made – it is estimated – more that 1600 coffins without any outside assistance, dug graves and buried the dead. It was only shortly before his death that help arrived in the form of Franciscan nuns, as well as some priests from his Congregation and two lay stalwarts, Joseph Dutton and James Sinnett. “Brother Joseph” and “Brother James”, Damien called them.

A biographer described Damien as “a vigorous, forceful, impellent man with a generous heart in the prime of life and a jack of all trades, carpenter, mason, baker, farmer, medico and nurse, no lazy bone in the makeup of his manhood, busy from morning till nightfall”. He was constantly interceding with the authorities of church and state on behalf of his poor people and he was not too popular with these same authorities. His local superior once reported him to the Order’s central government in Europe for being “excessive in his demands on behalf of his lepers”.

It is almost impossible to grasp how one man could accomplish what Father Damien accomplished during his lifetime. There is, however, one aspect of his life that has received less attention. In spite of the extraordinary demands made on him, he reserved the first hours of every day for prayer and spiritual reflection. His constant companion was a 15th century devotional book, The Imitation of Christ, which called for humility and austerity and a continuing self-examination. Damien took the lessons of the book to heart; even when he was dying he continued to sleep on a straw mattress on the floor. “Let it be our chief study,” the Imitation counsels, “to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ …. Jesus has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few who are willing to bear his cross”. How well Damien learned that lesson. This is a side of the new saint that is seldom referred to. This is Damien’s secret.

Sufferings there were in abundance in his life, physical and mental sufferings. He worried greatly because he had no spiritual director or regular confessor. Sometimes when a ship came close to Molokai with a priest on board, Damien would row out and shout his confessions up to the priest on board. This was as close as the law would allow him to approach. He was also aware of allegations of immorality made against him during his lifetime and, indeed, after his death. These accusations were caused by bigotry and envy but also by a wrong notion of the time that the disease of leprosy could be transmitted solely by sexual contact with someone suffering from the disease. The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson took up the cudgels on Damien’s behalf in this regard and wrote an impassioned Open Letter to Dr Hyde which has become a classic.

Damien identified with the lepers. He smoked their pipes and ate from their dishes. It was only too inevitable that he would contract the disease himself. The moment of his awareness that he had contracted the disease is represented dramatically in many of the films made about his life. He was washing his foot in a basin of water and when he was finished with one foot and put his second foot in the basin he had to pull it out quickly for the water was almost boiling hot. It then dawned on him that he was now himself a leper. In his homilies at Mass in the settlement up to this time he addressed his congregation as “You, lepers” but on the next occasion he started with “We, lepers”.

Suddenly Damien, Molokai and the leper settlement there went from total obscurity to world wide recognition. Ghandi claimed that there were very few heroes to compare with him. The Prince of Wales had a memorial erected to his memory. In later years a massive sculpture would commemorate him in the Hall of Statuary in the US Capitol building. His name and work appeared on the front pages of the major world newspapers. King Leopold III of the Belgians requested that Damien’s remains be brought back to his native country. Pope Pius XI informed the king that the Church would be considering Damien for sainthood. President Franklin D Roosevelt despatched the troop carrier Republic to take the priest’s remains as far as the Panama Canal where it was transferred to the Belgian ship The Mercator for the long journey home.

There was only one problem with this worldwide recognition and Damien’s final journey home: it was against his own wishes. He had asked that he be allowed to await the day of Resurrection among his “beloved lepers”. It was certainly against the wishes of the lepers themselves who bade farewell to their beloved “Kamiano” with “wails and lamentations” as one newspaper of the day put it. John Paul II recognised this in 1995 when he entrusted the bones of Damien’s right hand to a delegation of lepers in Brussels to be returned to the saint’s original burial place on Molokai.

The great theologian of the last century, Karl Rahner, stated more than once that the church has a duty to proclaim the holiness of its greatest members precisely because it has the duty of proclaiming the grace of God and what that grace accomplishes in people like Damien. He, together with all the saints, including Mary Queen of Saints, everybody and every thing holy are signposts or fingers pointing beyond themselves to God, the source of all goodness and holiness. Unfortunately, as the old proverb puts it, “the fool sees only the finger”!

The numbers at the leper settlement on Molokai are down to twenty or so and a group of these will be on hand in St Peter’s Square in Rome on October 11 next to see their great hero canonised. St Kamiano of Molokai, pray for them and for all of us!
by: Bishop Brendan Comiskey, ss.cc.
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