Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

February 23, 2009

Blessed Damien to be Canonized


The Vatican announced this weekend that Blessed Damien De Veuster, a priest of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, who had ministered with lepers in Hawaii in the nineteenth century and later died of the disease, would be canonized a saint on October 11, 2009. When Fr. Damien was first assigned to the leper colony at Kalawao, on the island of Molokai, he was at first struck by an invitation in the letter from his superiors: "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates." That he certainly did. The following text, written by Boniface Hanely, O.F.M. in Ten Christiansrecounts the last days of Fr. Damien's life, after he, too, had contracted leprosy.

In 1886, Father Damien wrote to his superior: "As I wrote to you about two years ago that I had then suspicions of the first germs of leprosy being in my system—the natural consequence of a long stay with these lepers—be not surprised or too much pained to know that one of your spiritual children is decorated not only with the Royal Cross of Kalakaua, but also with the cross more heavy, and considered less honorable, of lepsosy with which our Divine Savior has permitted me to be stigmatized."

The announcement that Damien had leprosy hit his own religious superiors, Father Fouesnel and his boship, Hermann Koeckemann, like a thunderbolt. Damien was the third Sacred Hearts missionary stricken with leprosy. To prevent further infection, Father Fouesnel forbade Damien to visit the mission headquarters of the Sacred Heart Fathers in Honolulu. "If ou come, "Father Superior advised Damien, "you will be relegated to a room which you are not to leave until your departure."

Father Fouesnel suggested that if Damien insisted on coming to Honolulu, he stay at the Franciscan sisters leper hospital. "But if you go there," the superior counseled, "please do not say Mass. For neither Father Clement nor I will consent to celebrate Mass with the same chalice and the same vestments you have used. The Sisters will refuse to receive Holy Communion from your hands." One can understand the superior's concern. But Damien was being forced, nonetheless, to consume the bitter wine of loneliness to its dregs. He now knew not only the physical sufferings of Chrihst but the harrowing loneliness and abandonment of the Savior. Damien did go to Honolulu and remained at the leprosarium from July 10-16. It was during that time that the arranged with Mother Marianne to come to Molokai. He spoke of his rejection by his own as "the greatest suffering he had ever endured in his life."

Dr. Mouritz, medical attendant at Molokai, charted the progress of the physical dissolution of Damien's body. He wrote: "The skin of the abdomen, chest, the back, is beginning to show tubercles, masses of infiltration.... The membranes of the nose, roof of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx are involved; the skin of his cheeks, nose, lips, forehead, and chin is excessively swollen.... His body is becoming emaciated."

An ever-deepening mental distress accompanied Damien's physical dissolution. A severe depression, as well as religious scruples, now plagued the leper priest. Damien felt he was unworthy of heaven. The rejection of his religious superiors left him in near disarray. Once he claimed: "From the rest of the world I received gold and frankincense, but from my own superiors myrrh."

As death approached, Father Damien engaged in a flurry of activity. He worked as much as his wounded and broken body would permit him. He wrote his bishop, entreating not to be dispensed from the obligation of the breviary, which he continued to recite as best he could as his eyes failed. The disease invading his windpipe progressed to such an extent that it kept him from sleeping more than an hour or two at night. His voice was reduced to a raucous whisper. Leprosy was in his throat, his lungs, his stomach, and his intestines. After ravaging his body outwardly, it was now destroying him from within.

As the end drew near, priests of his own congregation came to hear his confession. The leper priest had request a funeral pall, which the Franciscan Sisters made for him and delivered from Honolulu. It arrived the same day. Two more weeks of suffering, and on April 15, 1889, Damien died.. It was Holy Week. Some weeks before Damien had said that the Lord wanted him to spend Easter in heaven.

Once he had written, "The cemetery, the church and rectory form one enclosure; thus at nighttime I am still keeper of this garden of the dead, where my spiritual children lie at rest. My greatest pleasure is to go there to say my beads and meditate on that unending happiness which so many of them are already enjoying." And now it was his turn to occupy a little plot of ground in "his garden of the dead."


He no longer mediated on that unending happiness, but now most surely possessed it. Long ago he had selected the precise spot for his grave amid the two thousand lepers buried in Molokai cemetery. Coffin bearers laid him to rest under the same tree that had sheltered him when he first opened the letter from his superior with those fateful words: "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates...."


Assignments
  • Read and report on the life of Blessed Damien.
  • Damien described the disease as his . Have the students research the meaning of stigmata. Consider having them compare the life of Damien with that of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Assign Luke 18:11-19, Jesus' healing of the ten lepers. Have the students look up Old Testament laws concerning treatment of lepers that Jesus disregarded.

 

Comments

1 Richard Donley Fox

Feb. 24, 2009
You can learn a bit more about Damien de Veuster of Molokai at: <A HREF="http://www.philomena.org/damien.asp" REL="nofollow">www.philomena.org/damien.asp</A>

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