10th May is the feast day of St Damien of Molokai. Since few of us are ever likely to be in the modern equivalent of a leper colony, is he someone we need to admire from afar but not identify with?
Or is he important just because he is a famous Belgian?
Damien de Veuster was born in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium in 1840. His family were grain merchants, deeply religious but also practical and business minded.
He was tough and single minded, not particularly intellectual but dogged. Combined with a deep faith in God’s power, this took him through schooling and seminary in French, and to the missions in Hawaii.
Hawaii sounds very relaxing, with beaches and pig roasts, but when Damien was there it was more like an impenetrable jungle and voodoo. He himself was physically and spiritually strong and immensely energetic. To reach villages to announce the Gospel he hacked through jungle, climbed volcanoes and crossed the sea in canoes.
When his bishop asked for volunteers to minister to the colony on Molokai where the lepers had been dumped to fend for themselves, Damien was the first to volunteer. He had been at the meeting with only a change of clothes and his breviary and he went straight to the island without going home for his possessions.
Nothing in his life had prepared him for the filth and degradation he met on Molokai or for his own revulsion; but Damien was a problem solver and he met everything head on. He saw himself as a leader and a servant but also as part of a community.
He gave the lepers back their dignity by insisting they take responsibility for themselves as much as possible.
He built houses, hospitals and orphanages. He built coffins and set up a small savings bank so people could save up to buy them. But he also trained catechists, set up schools, sodalities and orchestras. Life was still there to be lived.
As a priest he taught his flock how to live their present lives to the full and how to prepare, spiritually and practically, to die. He never sugar coated the situation but he was always with them. Long before he actually contracted the disease, he spoke of ‘we lepers’.
So what does he teach us?
Damien was far from perfect being grumpy and impatient, but he knew how to live in the real situation of his life trusting in God; how to put himself at the service of God and his fellow man. He knew how to die for the other and as Pope Francis instructed his priests
‘to smell of the sheep’
Learn more with CTS booklet: Father Damien – Apostle to the Lepers, by Glynn MacNiven-Johnston