Some saint's lives speak to us more tellingly--for whatever reason--than others. I have always had a strong devotion to Damien of Molekai. Thinking about him, on his feast day, reminds me of two episodes. The only time I have ever encountered lepers was forty years ago. I was in Japan giving conferences for Air Force chaplains. One of the chaplains took me with him to a leper colony in the north of the great island. I remember seeing many disfigured people ( with gnarled, distorted faces and mere stumps for their limbs). It was a very closed but amazingly warm community which welcomed us. I recall much joy and lot of laughter. Most of these Japanese lepers had become Catholic since they had found a kind of embracing acceptance from the priests and nuns not found elsewhere from their fellow countrymen who tended to shun them.
At that time, there were two leprosaria in Japan: one in the north, one in the south. All the people in this northern leper colony came originally from the south. Concomitantly, all those in the south colony came from the north. Because of the disgrace connected with the disease, lepers were geographically removed from the possibility of almost any contact with family, fellow villagers, friends. I remember one young woman in the colony. I first spied her from her left profile. She had poignant and stunning beauty. Initially, I wondered why she was there, Then, she turned her head and I gained sight of her right profile--sagging and with the tell-tale signs of deteriorating flesh. I remember thinking of that Zen reminder that beauty is most beautiful, just as it is decaying or, like a flower, falling to the ground.
I have twice lived for a period in Leuven, Belgium where Damien's body is buried. When I first visited, in 1985, the church were his body lies, Damien was not yet beatified. Church law dictated that non-beatified bodies were not to be placed in above-ground catafalques. But the Flemish faithful knew, in their bones and devotional life, long before his beatification in 1995 ( Damien was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009) that Damien was a saint, so they laid his body anyway--against the canonical restrictions-- above ground. In the chapel below the main church of the Sacred Heart ( Picpus) fathers, I would often pray and go to touch the catafalque.
As a young man, Damien was not, at first, considered proper material for ordination. By dint of hard work and mastering his Latin, he was ordained. Throughout his studies, Damien had prayed--as so many missionaries over the years have-- to Saint Francis Xavier. Because his brother was too ill to be sent, Damien took his place as a missionary to the Kingdom of Hawaii. At a time when wholesale diseases were descending on the island from visiting sailors ( tuberculosis, syphilis etc.), an outbreak of leprosy occurred. The Hawaiian king had the lepers quarantined on Molekai. The bishop, in search of volunteers to go to the leper colony as a priest, sent Damien. He stayed and worked there for sixteen years. Not only did he build a church, a clinic, orphanages, Damien acted as a kind of undertaker. He started a child's choir and a band. He helped the lepers build suitable housing. In his early years, Damien wrote to his brother back in Belgium: " I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ". Eventually, Damien himself contracted leprosy and could turn to his congregation with that famous address: " we lepers".
Damien's feats and heroism were spread abroad by a Princess of the Kingdom who had visited Molekai. He was attacked, however, by several Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries ( who, one supposes, were jealous of Damien's growing fame and were propelled by their instinctive anti-Catholicism). The most famous attack came from a Presbyterian minister, C.M. Hyde, who accused Damien of being a plain, course, dirty man whose leprosy had been contracted out of carelessness. Robert Louis Stephenson took it upon himself to visit Molekai for eight days. He kept a careful diarity of his stay and became impressed by the heroic charity, sanctity and simplicity of Damien.
Stepphenson publicly and famously rebuked Hyde: " But, sir, when we have failed and another has succeeded, when we have stood by and another has stepped in, when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted and consoles the dying and is himself afflicted in his turn and dies upon the field of honor, the battle cannot be retrieved by your unhappy irritation. It is a lost battle. One thing remained to you in your defeat: some rags of common honor and those you have made haste to cast away". Stephenson even predicted eventual sainthood for Damien.
Damien, an obscure saint of service, now has a statue dedicted to him representing Hawaii, in the National Hall of Statuary in Washington, D.C. Gandhi once said that the fame and story of Damien inspired him to take up the cause of the outcastes. In my life, I have only fervently prayed for the canonization of four people: Damien; Mary McKillop of Australia ( whose shrine and tomb I visited several times in North Sydney in 2005 and 2007. I was able to attend her canonization in October, 2010); John Henry Newman and Dorothy Day. Damien's message to us is caught in some words of Dorothy Day. Day once said that we Christians should" live a life so mysterious that the only adequate explanation for it is the presence of a living, loving God." Damien led such a life. I look forward to visiting his grave again this coming October when I am in Leuven for a conference at the University of Louvain.