When I was a child in grade school, one of the lives of the saints that especially impressed me was that of Fr. Damien of Molokai, the Belgian priest who went to the Hawaiian islands and then to the leper colony on the island of Molokai where he gave his life for the betterment of the wretched conditions of the lepers, both spiritually and materially. It’s a marvelous story; a number of good books have been written about him, and now he is [Saint] Damien, having been [canonized] by Pope [Benedict].
On Easter Sunday in 1953, the aircraft carrier in which I was serving in the Navy glided into the quiet waters of Pearl Harbor and that afternoon, I was able to begin my exploration of those beautiful islands. I went downtown and there found the cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, the church in which Damien had been ordained to the priesthood after finishing his priestly studies in the islands. It meant a great deal to me to be there where his priesthood began; it ended just a few miles across the waters of the Pacific as he died of leprosy contracted while caring for his beloved flock—a martyr of generosity and love. Many years later I was able to visit his tomb in Louvain, Belgium, and celebrate Mass there. I have also very proudly visited his statue in the Hall of Statuary in our national capitol building in Washington, where each state is invited to place two statues of those considered its outstanding citizens. When Hawaii became a state, it placed there a statue of Fr. Damien.
[Saint] Damien died on April 15, the date of my ordination to the priesthood, but the Church observes his feastday on May 10. So today I am happy to celebrate that life: so terrible in its material aspects and so beautiful in its spiritual value.
In Paris, there is a street called Picpus where the seminary and motherhouse of [Saint] Damien’s congregation are located. That’s where Damien studied and from where he left for Hawaii. During the French Revolution, a guillotine stood in a public square nearby. When the Carmelite Nuns of Compiegne were killed there because they clung tenaciously to their Catholic faith and their Carmelite religious life, their bodies were dumped into a common grave in the graveyard of that seminary. Possibly the beautiful example of their courage moved Damien to volunteer first for the Hawaiian mission, and then for the extraordinary work among the lepers. They became martyrs to faith and religious life; he did so to generosity and love. Jesus promised eternal life to those who visited him when he was sick in the persons of all the sick of this world. No one has visited the sick in so profound a way as [Saint] Damien. In a number of the books about him, you can find two photographs of him whose juxtaposition is striking: Damien as a fine-looking young Belgian seminarian and then Damien as a dying leper, his face and hands terribly disfigured by the disease. On my visit to the Picpus cemetery, I felt tremendous pride and joy at the courage of the Carmelite Nuns whose bodies are still in that common grave, and of [Saint] Damien who studied there on his way to Hawaii, priesthood, generosity, death by leprosy, and the admiration of the Church and the world. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.