St. Damien: Find Your Own Molokai
The church will soon have a new saint. This Sunday, Oct. 11, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize St. Damien of Molokai (or St. Damien de Veuster). He may fairly be called--with not too much of a stretch--an "American" saint, an immigrant who came to work on what came to be American territory. In this way he is something like Mother Cabrini, the Italian-born immigrant who came to work with the poor in New York. And yes, I know Hawaii wasn't a state then, indeed an entirely separate nation (as one commenter pointed out). Nonetheless, we're happy to include St. Damien in our family of saints in the States. After all, both Portugal and Italy celebrate St. Anthony of Padua.
This comment from the Maui News caught my eye today: "You read about his story and realize he is very incredible. It took a man from way far away to more or less bring the Hawaiian people together and . . . bring all the people together to understand our cause and care for the people who suffered." That's Clarence Kahilihiwa, the son of parents who suffered from Hansen's disease. Mr. Kahilihiwa has a great love for the church's newest saint.
But even those who know only the barest scraps of his story understand that the life of Father Damien was an extraordinary one. And that raises a problematic question: What can the life of Father Damien (like "Blessed Teresa" it will take some time to begin to refer to him as "Saint Damien") say to us today?
Very few of us are going to enter religious order, leave our native country and work with the very ill and very forgotten. "Lepers," a detested term for those suffering from Hansen's disease, were reviled even in Biblical times: many of Jesus's most well-known miracles are those healing people suffering from "leprosy," though scholars tell us that this could refer to any variety of skin diseases. In Damien's day those suffering from Hansen's disease were banished to the island of Molokai. It was there that the Belgian-born Joseph de Veuster (he took the religious name Damien after joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) went in 1873. Just a few years before, in 1864, Damien had arrived in Hawaii and was ordained a priest in the cathedral in Honolulu. As is well known, Damien spent the rest of his brief life in Molokai ministering to the sick and marginalized until he too contracted Hansen's disease. He died in 1889, at the age of 49.
In a (perhaps unintentional) snub of the peoples of the island, Damien's body was exhumed and sent back to Belgium, where it was buried in a crypt in Louvain in 1936. Only in 1995 did Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of Damien's beatification, send bones from his right hand back to Molokai to be reburied in the original grave. The final step to Damien's canonization came with the miraculous cure of a retired teacher in Hawaii named Audrey Toguchi.
The story of Damien, like the lives of so many saints, can seem while noble, largely irrelevant to our own. Yet by reading the saints' lives carefully one always find resonances with the lives of everyday believers. What parent is not called upon to minister to a child when he or she falls ill, even at the risk of contracting an illness? Who among us is not called to stand with the outcast, with those whom polite society shuns either literally or metaphorically? Who is not called to do works of charity and love that may remain utterly hidden from the rest of the world. Think of the husband or wife caring for the spouse with Alzheimer's. Is this not a hidden act of charity? Think of the parent caring for a child with a cancer or an incurable illness. Even if the parent does not contract the illness, is this not a heroic deed? Damien is not as far from us as many would think.
When the faithful used to visit Mother Teresa and ask to work alongside her in Calcutta, she would sometimes say, "Find your own Calcutta." That is, care for the poor where you are. Perhaps the story of St. Damien says to us, "Find your own Molokai."
James Martin, SJ