Today is a day to celebrate a life well lived, a life given for the sake of others – and not just “others” in the abstract sense of the term, but “others” who were despised and rejected, transported away from human society and left on an island to die. Father Damien responded to Christ’s call to serve “the least of these” and he gave his life for them.
Born Joseph de Veuster at Tremeloo, Belgium on January 3, 1840 – he was a farmer’s son. Joseph was sent to college to enter a commercial trade. At age 18, he responded to the mission of the Redemptorists. He entered the novitiate of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, and took the name Damien. Three years after entering the profession, he was sent on a mission to the Hawaiin islands. There, he served not only as a missionary to the natives, but built chapels in Hawaii and Molokai.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes this chapter of Father Damien’s life in this way –
On the latter island there had grown up a leper settlement where the Government kept segregated all persons afflicted with the loathsome disease. The board of health supplied the unfortunates with food and clothing, but was unable in the beginning to provide them with either resident physicians or nurses. On 10 May, 1873, Father Damien, at his own request and with the sanction of his bishop, arrived at the settlement as its resident priest. There were then 600 lepers.
“As long as the lepers can care for themselves”, wrote the superintendent of the board of health to Bishop Maigret, “they are comparatively comfortable, but as soon as the dreadful disease renders them helpless, it would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”
For a long time, however, Father Damien was the only one to bring them the succour they so greatly needed. He not only administered the consolations of religion, but also rendered them such little medical service and bodily comforts as were within his power. He dressed their ulcers, helped them erect their cottages, and went so far as to dig their graves and make their coffins.
After twelve years of this heroic service he discovered in himself the first symptoms of the disease. This was in 1885. He nevertheless continued his charitable ministrations, being assisted at this period by two other priests and two lay brothers. On 28 March, 1889, Father Damien became helpless and passed away shortly after, closing his fifteenth year in the service of the lepers.
While I don’t believe we should elevate human “saints” to divine-like status, it is important that we train our eyes to see Christ-like qualities in the self-less lives of godly men and women. Father Damien’s sacrifice should be view not as an exception to the rule, but as a model for all of us to follow as we are called to by God.
Mahatma Ghandi is quoted to have once said –
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
I wish Ghandi could have met Father Damien. I wish more Father Damiens would have been in Ghandi’s world. I wish I could be more like Father Damien, as he reflected the goodness of Jesus Christ.