The Face of the Good Samaritan, The Anchor, August 15, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
August 15, 2008

During my seminary years in Rome, when we needed a vacation but didn’t have much money to spend, we would generally head to Belgium. It was pretty easy to find a cheap, direct flight to Brussels on Sabena Airlines and we were able to stay for free at the American College in Louvain, the U.S. bishops’ other seminary in Europe. From there, we could take day trips to Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Marian shrine of Beauraing, the cathedrals of northern France and more.

During my first trip to Louvain in 1997, however, I discovered that my favorite pilgrimage spot was only a five-minute walk away.

On our first night in this historic college town, while heading to the main square to sample Belgium’s world famous monastery beers, we passed a little chapel dedicated to St. Anthony. We decided to stop in and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

As we were leaving, next to the exit, there was a staircase heading to the crypt of the Church that had a sign in French and Flemish saying, “Tomb of Blessed Damien de Veuster.” We looked at each other with dubious glances, not having any clue as to how the tomb of the great missionary to the Molokai lepers had ended up in a small Church in Louvain.

Taking the stairs down, we discovered a modern chapel with many photos of Father Damien. In the center was a large black marble tomb. Short history cards on the walls described that Father Damien was originally buried in 1889 in Molokai, but in 1936 the Belgian government asked that his body be returned to Belgium. Since Louvain is close to the village where he was born, he was buried in this chapel.

I felt like I had literally found a buried treasure. For each of the days of our vacation, I returned there to pray. Fr. Damien’s priestly example had always fascinated me, but I had never really invoked him as an intercessor. Now, as I was preparing for my own priestly ordination, I came to ask his help that I might imitate his priestly witness of pastoral charity, courage and daily self-sacrifice. I’ve used him as an intercessor ever since.

With so many in Hawaii, with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and with others throughout the world, I rejoiced on July 3 at the news that Pope Benedict had accepted a miracle that paves the way for Fr. Damien’s long-awaited canonization.  

Many of us know the story of soon-to-be Saint Damien of Molokai. Born in Belgium, he followed his brother August into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. When he was 24, as his brother was too ill to go as a missionary to Hawaii, Damien took his place. There he was ordained a priest and worked for nine years mostly on the island of Hawaii. He showed early signs of his pastoral zeal in a letter he to his parents, imploring them, “Do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes night and day in search of strayed sheep. Pray night and day for me, I beg you.”

In 1873, Bishop Louis Maigret briefed the Sacred Hearts Fathers on the need for priestly ministrations in Kalaupapa on the Island of Molokai, which King Kamehameha V had set up seven years earlier to quarantine lepers. Of the 816 with Hansen’s Disease in the enclave, 200 were Catholic, and he had received letters from several of them begging him to send a priest so that they might suffer and die with the consolation of the sacraments. The bishop knew what he was proposing: a slow martyrdom, as chaplain to a walking graveyard. Fully conscious of the consequences, Fr. Damien stepped forward to take the assignment.

When he arrived on May 10, Bishop Maigret prophetically introduced him to the colony of lepers as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you.”

The 33-year old priest got right down to work — every type of work. He built churches, homes and beds. He created farms and schools and worked to enforce basic laws. He fought to have medicine sent and to get his people whatever medical care was possible. At first, it was hard for him to approach the lepers because he had a natural revulsion to the fetid odor given off by their leprous sores. To overcome this olfactory repugnance, he began to smoke a pipe so that the smell of tobacco would make it possible for him to approach the lepers with dignity as he began to dress their ulcers.

While what he could do for their deteriorating bodies was limited, he knew that he could help prepare their souls to meet the Lord. The first thing he did was to give increased attention to the funeral rites. He knew that if the lepers saw how much care he showed them at their death, they might begin to sense the value of their lives. He brought them the sacraments at their bedsides and tidied their rooms and beds to await the imminent visit of the Lord Jesus. He formed choirs, taught them how to sing beautiful hymns at Requiem Masses, and taught others to play accompanying musical instruments. He cleaned the cemetery and adorned it with flowers. He even made coffins. 

At the same time, he instituted perpetual adoration, so that the lepers would know that the Lord Jesus was with them always and so that they would have the opportunity to pour out their hearts to Him in their need. Father Damien knew, too, that this was what sustained him. “I find my consolation,” he wrote in a letter, “in the one and only companion who will never leave me, that is, our Divine Savior in the Holy Eucharist.… Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content.”

It is unsurprising that his witness began to win over the members of his community. Six months after his arrival, he had 400 people preparing for baptism. A cheerful spirit began to radiate in the community in place of the former dejection.

His greatest cross, he said, was not having another priest to whom to go to confession. Despite the accolades he was gaining from the stories about him across the globe, he humbly knew how much he needed the Lord’s forgiveness. He would often have to row out to ships in the harbor, ask if there were a chaplain on board and then, since he was prevented from coming on board, without shame shout up his sins to the confessor. It was a great witness to sailors, priests and lepers alike.

In December of 1884, he discovered that he had contracted leprosy. He wrote, “My eyebrows are beginning to fall out. Soon I will be disfigured entirely. Having no doubts about the true nature of my disease, I am calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people.”

To those who asked him how he was holding up, he said, “Our Lord will give me the graces I need to carry my cross and follow him, even to our special Calvary at Kalawao.” He died during on Tuesday of Holy Week in 1889.

Just as the Lord Jesus loved us enough that he came into our world, took on our human flesh, and redeemed it, so Fr. Damien entered into the lepers’ world, courageously took on their dreaded disease, and united it and them to the Lord. He became for them and for us an icon of Christ’s tenderness and mercy for every person, revealing the beauty of his soul that no illness, however repulsive, can disfigure.

He will forever be the face of the Good Samaritan.