Father Damien Was a Priest and a Man of Sacrifice| National Catholic Register

There are two photographs.

One is of a young and handsome priest, not long after his ordination. It is a standard photograph from the 19th century, remembering the moment shortly after the subject had received in his soul the indelible spiritual character of Christ’s priesthood. The framing of its subject is romantic, heroic even. A souvenir, no doubt, for a proud Catholic mother.

The other photograph was taken many years later. Although its subject was not to know it, this photograph recorded a moment in one of his final days on this earth. Now the handsome features have gone. Instead, the face and the hands are shot through with leprosy — then a disease that was as obvious to the eye as it was destructive to the person suffering from it.

The man photographed on both occasions has come down to us known as “Father Damien.” His name conjures images of lepers on distant islands in the South Pacific, and of himself as an exotic figure. He is one of the very best examples of the far-reaching 19th-century Christian missionary effort. His life story, superficially at least, might be seen simply as that of “heroic missionary” and left at that.

Such a simplistic analysis, however, would not do justice to the man who lived and died in the service of some of the most forgotten, indeed despised, people who then lived. What it would also veil is how much this life-giving service was not only expressed via his priesthood but was his priesthood. If the word “priest” is identified, rightly, with the word “sacrifice,” then, in the life of Father Damien, this identification with a special clarity can be glimpsed.

In fact, the closer one looks at the life of Father Damien, the clearer it becomes that the mystery of the Holy Eucharist lay at the heart of this priest. Only when you understand this are you able to begin to fathom why Father Damien lived as he did, and why he loved as he did.

Jozef De Veuster was born in Belgium, in Tremelo, on Jan. 3, 1840. Given the country of his birth and the times in which he was born, his background was solidly Catholic. He was the second child of eight children. Two sisters entered religious life; Pamphile, an older brother, became a priest. Jozef wished to follow his brother into the priesthood, but his path thence was delayed by family responsibilities. Furthermore, he showed no aptitude for learning. His gifts were practical: he was good with his hands, especially as a builder. With hindsight, it is clear that in the designs of Providence he was being prepared, by these gifts, for a unique mission, one that would need hands skilled in building as much as ones devoted to turning the pages of a missal.

He was 20 years old when he entered religious life, taking the name Damien, and joining his brother in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. Joseph had considered other religious orders. Given his practical bent and solitary nature, he had first thought of the Trappists. But nothing came of this. Interestingly, he also inquired at the American College at Louvain, which had been established to provide missionary priests for North America. The college refused him. Yet, with hindsight, both these attractions — to the solitary Trappists and to the missionary effort in the New World — are intimations of his future priestly life.

By 1864 he was on his way to the missions. It should have been his older priest brother who went, but Pamphile fell ill. Damien gladly took his place. In any event, the younger brother had the advantage in his particular gifts. Not only was he more practical and physically stronger than his brother, but he had already been marked out by his superiors as an ascetic. At the seminary, he would rise in the middle of the night for his adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, often not returning to bed once he had spent his long vigil before the Eucharist. This combination of endurance — both physical and spiritual — would prove the perfect preparation for what lay ahead for Damien.

The ship he boarded in a north German port was bound for Hawaii, then an independent kingdom. In fact, it was 1840, the year of Damien’s birth, that Hawaii adopted a constitution that made the island kingdom Christian. The world where Damien was heading, therefore, was Christian if by no means Catholic. Protestant and Mormon missionaries had, until then, been more active than Catholic ones. Throughout the 19th century, an element of competition existed between missionaries of the different denominations and sects. Damien was conscious of this when he arrived in Hawaii in 1864. What his subsequent life was to reveal, however, was how facile that seeming “competition” had been.

Damien was not ordained priest until he arrived in Hawaii, on May 21, 1864, in the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Honolulu. It is fitting that the first moments of his priestly mission should begin upon the soil on which he would live and, ultimately, die as a priest. It is equally curious that in the designs of Divine Providence, the man who would become one of America’s most famous priests should receive his anointing upon what later would become its soil.

Father Damien was assigned to the Catholic mission in North Kohala, Hawaii. There, he cared for the hundreds of Catholics scattered throughout that large geographic region. In his ministering to these far-flung faithful, he would carry the church on his back — literally. He would carry with him a makeshift structure of poles and cloths, a portable altar, and other necessaries for the liturgy so that he could say Holy Mass for his flock wherever they were to be found. The next eight years were to be but a preparation for the assignment that would change his life — and complete his vocation.

Molokai is one of the smaller islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Then it was a leper colony. The local bishop asked for priests to volunteer to minister to the unfortunate inhabitants abandoned there. Without hesitation, Father Damien volunteered. On May 10, 1873, he arrived on Molokai. Apart from a few rare trips abroad, for the rest of his life, Father Damien was to remain there with the souls who had been entrusted to him.

It has been easy to romanticize Father Damien’s time on Molokai. It has been equally easy, perhaps, to view the souls to whom he pastored as a homogenous and worthy “mass,” as opposed to disparate groups of individuals marked by Original Sin. But, in reality, it was hard to romanticize Molokai. Everyone there suffered from the then-incurable disease of leprosy. It was an illness so contagious that those infected were separated from their loved ones and sent to what was essentially a “prison island.” As a result, despair was rife among the island’s inhabitants. As their physical bodies wasted away, so too their mental and moral strength evaporated. Not surprisingly, in this vacuum of hope, alcoholism and sexual immorality were rampant, ready accompaniments to the widespread despair.

By the end, he loved his charges; he loved serving as a priest. In addition, he was practical and hard-working, laboring to make the spiritual and physical lives of the islanders better and helping to construct homes and a church for them. All of this was what Father Damien had been called to do, and he did so gladly. But, still, he suffered, not least from the isolation he endured. For example, he endured the trial of being unable to go to Confession regularly. He wrote to his superiors of how, with no regular confrere to whom he could confess, he was forced to do so alone before the Blessed Sacrament. There is also the story of how Father Damien went by boat to meet a passing ship when he was told that there was a priest on board from whom he could receive the sacrament. Because of the leper island from which he hailed, the ship’s captain refused Father Damien permission to board. So the priest was forced to shout his sins to the winds and to the priest-confessor on board, so keen was he to receive absolution.

That very public expression was of a soul who was, privately, very much a contemplative, regardless of how intensely active his ministry was with the souls on Molokai. Through accounts written by those who visited Father Damien, a picture has emerged of this priest’s life. Each day he rose at 5am. He prayed before he celebrated Holy Mass at 6am. Afterward, there were 30 minutes of silent thanksgiving. A light breakfast was followed by three hours devoted to reciting the Divine Office, the study of theology, and reading Sacred Scripture. After lunch, his afternoons were wholly pastoral: visiting his flock, caring for them in practical ways, exhorting them, on occasion reprimanding them. Just by being among his parishioners, he brought Christ to those considered outcasts from society. When he returned home, he would say the Divine Office. Sometimes he would teach catechism to anyone who desired it. After supper he would say the Rosary, sometimes in the local cemetery, offering it for those whom he had buried there. Finally, he would read the New Testament until sleep claimed him.

Father Damien was lauded by some who visited. Through them, his fame spread far and wide. This meant little to him. Closer to home, he suffered from the lack of concern from superiors who were largely indifferent to his mission. Few in authority really understood Father Damien in what was now his life’s work on Molokai. Partly, this was his own fault: from youth, he had been a man of passion, and he lacked some of the social graces that others possessed. Still, this aspect of his character — one that was rough-hewn and, therefore, at times misunderstood — proved to be a means by which he could understand more easily those suffering from leprosy who were now his flock. Like Father Damien, they were settled on an island far from the rest of humanity where they could be conveniently forgotten by others.

In any event, the wider world’s acclaim of the priest, such as it was, was often misjudged. Father Damien was no humanitarian idealist. His motivation was solely the Gospel. He did not see his fellow islanders as “lepers” but as souls in need of the same graces as he was. His mission was helping to save souls, not the healing of illness. His desire for his fellow islanders was not so they could have some vague sense of “well-being” but, instead, stemmed from an understanding that heaven and hell existed and that he was responsible for the eternal destiny of those to whom he ministered.

Mysteriously and constantly through all this — and, indeed, in all this — was the Eucharist. There is a report of one feast of Corpus Christi on Molokai when Father Damien performed 35 baptisms. If that, alone, were not noteworthy enough, there occurred afterward a Eucharistic Procession in honor of the feast. A visitor who wrote of this marveled at the “procession of lepers, leper cantors, leper musicians” and wondered at the glory given to God “by those unfortunates” in contrast to those who were more blessed with health.

In 1886 Father Damien himself wrote to his superiors about these liturgies. He described how his church was now too small to accommodate all those who wished to attend Holy Mass, and how beautifully his choir sang — a choir consisting of lepers under the direction of a blind leper. He wrote of how, after Benediction was given, the island parish met together and shared what food they had. Such moments were dear to Father Damien and proved a great consolation for what, in so many hidden ways, he endured daily.

It was in December 1884 when Father Damien began to identify with his flock more fully still. It was then that he realized that he had contracted leprosy. Yet he would live on until 1889. Throughout the intervening years, as much as he was able, he would work and pray and continue to serve. But during this time, with fear of contagion strong among so many, he would also become more isolated from his superiors and fellow priests.

The painful final chapter came slowly.

By March 23, 1889, he was bedridden. Having made a general confession to a visiting priest, Father Damien died of leprosy at 8am on April 15, 1889. He was 49 years old.

The next day, a Requiem Mass was offered at the church the dead priest had built. As the funeral cortege made its way to the island cemetery, the whole settlement solemnly followed behind it. That day the islanders laid the priest to rest under the same tree where he had slept on his first night on Molokai.

Those two photographs of Father Damien — one as he started out on his mission, and one when it was consummated through illness — remain starkly contrasting. But then, reflecting upon his life, perhaps they are not so different after all. One expresses the idealism of a young man who wanted to be solely identified with Christ. The later one reveals the extent and the cost of that ideal. Combined, they are a photographic record of what it means to die to self. In particular, in that later photograph, Father Damien is revealed as a true priest now wholly identified with the Sacrifice from which his ministry derived. 


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