“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, (John 15:13).
The Catholic Church remembers St. Damien of Molokai on May 10. The Belgian priest sacrificed his life and health to become a spiritual father to the victims of leprosy quarantined on a Hawaiian island.
Joseph de Veuser, who later took the name Damien in religious life, was born into a farming family in the Belgian town of Tremlo in 1840. During his youth he felt a calling to become a Catholic missionary, an urge that prompted him to join the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
Damien’s final vows to the congregation involved a dramatic ceremony in which his superiors draped him in the cloth that would be used to cover his coffin after death. The custom was meant to symbolize the young man’s solemn commitment, and his identification with Christ’s own death. For Damien, the event would become more significant, as he would go on to lay down his life for the lepers of Molokai.
His superiors originally intended to send Damien’s brother, a member of the same congregation, to Hawaii. But he became sick, and Damien arranged to take his place. Damien arrived in Honolulu in 1864, less than a century after Europeans had begun to establish a presence in Hawaii. He was ordained a priest the same year.
During his ninth year of the priesthood, Father Damien responded to his bishop’s call for priests to serve on the leper colony of Molokai. A lack of previous exposure to leprosy, which had no treatment at the time, made the Hawaiian natives especially susceptible to the infection. Molokai became a quarantine center for the victims, who became disfigured and debilitated as the disease progressed.
The island had become a wasteland in human terms, despite its natural beauty. The leprosy victims of Molokai faced hopeless conditions and extreme deprivation, sometimes lacking not only basic palliative care but even the means of survival.
Inwardly, Fr. Damien was terrified by the prospect of contracting leprosy himself. However, he knew that he would have to set aside this fear in order to convey God’s love to the lepers in the most authentic way. Other missionaries had kept the lepers at arms’ length, but Fr. Damien chose to immerse himself in their common life and leave the outcome to God.
The inhabitants of Molokai saw the difference in the new priest’s approach, and embraced his efforts to improve their living conditions. A strong man, accustomed to physical labor, he performed the Church’s traditional works of mercy – such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and giving proper burial to the dead – in the face of suffering that others could hardly even bear to see.
Fr. Damien’s work helped to raise the lepers up from their physical sufferings, while also making them aware of their worth as beloved children of God. Although he could not take away the constant presence of death in the leper colony, he could change its meaning and inspire hope. The death-sentence of leprosy could, and often did, become a painful yet redemptive path toward eternal life.
The priest’s devotion to his people, and his activism on their behalf, sometimes alienated him from officials of the Hawaiian kingdom and from his religious superiors in Europe. His mission was not only fateful, but also lonely. He drew strength from Eucharistic adoration and the celebration of the Mass, but longed for another priest to arrive so that he could receive the sacrament of confession regularly.
In December of 1884, Fr. Damien discovered that he had lost all feeling in his feet. It was an early, but unmistakable sign that he had contracted leprosy. The priest knew that his time was short. He undertook to finish whatever accomplishments he could, on behalf of his fellow colony residents, before the diseased robbed him of his eyesight, speech and mobility.
Fr. Damien suffered humiliations and personal trials during his final years. An American Protestant minister accused him of scandalous behavior, based on the contemporary belief that leprosy was a sexually transmitted disease. He ran into disagreements with his religious superiors, and felt psychologically tormented by the notion that his work had been a failure.
In the end, priests of his congregation arrived to administer the last sacraments to the dying priest. During the Spring of 1889, Fr. Damien told his friends that he believed it was God’s will for him to spend the upcoming Easter not on Molokai, but in heaven. He died of leprosy during Holy Week, on April 15, 1889.
St. Damien of Molokai was beatified in 1995. Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in 2009.