Wednesday 27 October 2010

St Damien of Molokai - Apostle of the lepers

Fr Damien De Veuster (1840-1889)
photographed three months before his death,
at the age of 49, after 16 years serving the lepers of Molokai

Since its foundation the Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem has cared for those suffering from leprosy. Indeed it began by welcoming knights from other Orders who had been stricken by this disease. Those suffering from leprosy, or Hanson's Disease as it is now known, have always been at the heart of the mission and prayers of the Order.

Just over a year ago,on Sunday 11th October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica gave the entire Church a new Hero of Faith, when he canonised Father Damien De Veuster, the Leper Priest.

Father Damien, also known as the apostle of the lepers, was born in Belgium in 1840. At 33 he went to the island of Molokai, Hawaii, where lepers were sent and lived in isolation.

Depriving himself of everything, the priest stayed there serving, catechizing and administering the sacraments to those who had contracted this disease. He himself contracted it and died in 1899. He once said:
“Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the lepers of Molokai.”

The Holy Father began the homily at the Canonisation Mass by asking the question posed to Christ by a rich young man in the Gospel: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“The Divine Master looks at him with love,” the Holy Father continues, “and proposes the qualitative leap, he calls him to the heroism of sanctity, he asks him to abandon everything and follow him: ‘Sell what you own and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me!’”

“This is the Christian vocation that flows from a proposal of love by the Lord, and that can be realized only thanks to our loving reply,” he said. “Jesus invites his disciples to the total giving of their lives, without calculation or personal gain, with unfailing trust in God.

“The saints welcome this demanding invitation and set about following the crucified and risen Christ with humble docility. Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the centre, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel.”

Fr Damien “left his home in Flanders to proclaim the Gospel on the other side of the world, the Hawaiian Islands,” the Pontiff recounted. “His missionary activity, which gave him so much joy, reaches its summit in charity.

“Not without fear and repugnance, he chose to go to the Island of Molokai to serve the lepers who were there, abandoned by all; thus he exposed himself to the disease they suffered from. He felt at home with them. The Servant of the Word thus became a suffering servant, a leper with lepers, during the last four years of his life.”

"Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in St Paul's footsteps, St Damien prompts us to choose the good battle, not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity."

Following the Mass of Canonisation, the Holy Father went out into Saint Peter's Square to greet some forty thousand additional faithful who could not fit inside the basilica. He urged them to pray and help those involved in the battle against leprosy and "other forms of leprosy that are due to lack of love because of ignorance and cowardice".

St Damien's dedication to the outcasts of Molokai, his efforts to introduce new medical techniques, showed that he deeply valued the material side of life and bodily health. Yet he was more than a social worker. He shared his very life with those pariahs on the margins of the world, treating them with his own hands, not hesitating to touch them with love, until finally he became a leper himself and died from the disease.

With his life, and the celebrity that came his way, he put leprosy on the map. His contribution has been important in generating the energy needed to conquer the disease and eradicate it—a battle that still has not been entirely won. Above all, it showed something universal, something essential in Christianity: namely, that in love for the poorest, lived as self-giving until death, lies a road to salvation. Neither Islam nor Buddhism produces this kind of saint.

As we prepare to elect our 50th Grand Master next month, let us remember the origins of our noble Order and ask the intercession of the Apostle of the Lepers.

St Damien of Molokai pray for us and for the Order of St Lazarus.