Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Priest and missionary: St. Damien of Molokai

October 25, 2009

Mission Sunday was celebrated on Oct. 18, and I thank all those who contributed to the annual collection for the missions outside of this country. Catholics in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America are helped through the generosity of Catholics in this country. Pope Benedict XVI calls this exchange “solidarity with young churches.”

Missionary zeal has always been a sign of a church’s vitality. The unity of the church is forged in the preaching of who Christ is to all the people he died and rose to save. The pope explains: “It is the light of the Gospel that guides peoples on their journey and leads them towards the realization of the one great family, in justice and peace … . The church exists to announce this message of hope to all humankind, which in our time has experienced marvelous achievements but which seems to have lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself.”

A mission needs missionaries. Every baptized Christian is called to preach the Gospel, wherever they might be. On mission Sunday, however, we usually remember and pray for those who have left their own families and friends, their careers and homelands, to preach the Gospel and establish the church in cultures and countries not their own. On Oct. 18, Pope Benedict XVI declared one of them a saint of the church: Joseph de Veuster, known to us as Damien of Molokai.

Damien’s story attracts and challenges many, because it is a story that makes no sense outside of Christ’s self-sacrifice for the salvation of the world. As a young seminarian, Damien left his native Belgium and sailed halfway around the world to the Hawaiian Islands, where he was ordained a priest on May 21, 1864. Like elsewhere in the tropics, Hawaii was home to the disease then known as “leprosy.” To prevent contagion, lepers were exiled to a peninsula on the island of Molokai, where they had to shift for themselves. The bishop in Honolulu was concerned about those who had been exiled and abandoned because of their disease, and he asked for a priest to volunteer to go and live among them. Knowing that such a life meant an early death, Damien volunteered and left for Molokai on May 10, 1873.

Damien lived 16 years among the people he served in various ways but, most of all, whom he served as a priest. He preached the Gospel, heard their confessions, celebrated the Eucharist and their marriages, baptized their children and accompanied them as they died. He accompanied them even more closely when he himself fell victim to leprosy in 1885. He died among them on April l5, 1889.

He took a constant interest in scientific proposals for a cure, and he entered into experiments on himself. He took a greater interest in curing isolation, and he provided literary and musical entertainments to help form community among those who were rejected by everyone else. He built and directed the building of houses, an orphanage, the church, a hospital and a wharf. With his help, the lepers laid a pipeline to bring fresh water to their village and began vegetable and flower gardens. He opened a store, which was provisioned when ships in the harbor managed to deliver their cargoes without docking.

Father Damien wrote, “My greatest happiness is to serve the Lord in these poor sick children, rejected by others.” He befriended as well anyone, of any religion or personal persuasion, who could help those to whom he gave his own life. The source of his constancy, as he explained it, was the Eucharist: “Without the presence of our divine master in my small chapel, I would never be able to sustain my life united to that of the lepers of Molokai.” He was often brusque and was frequently criticized in life. He felt abandoned as he died. In death, however, the moral heroism of his life and of his witness to Christ became evident to all. Less than two months after his death, a “leprosy fund” was established in London, the first organization devoted to helping the victims of this disease.

St. Damien’s heart was a priestly heart, conformed to the heart of Christ. This is the Year for Priests. The essence of priesthood is self-sacrificing love anchored in Christ’s own love for his people. When I pray daily for our seminarians, I pray that they will have hearts eager to sacrifice themselves for Christ and his people. I ask you to join me in that prayer.