Not the Hawaii You Know

05-07-2023Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Aloha Friends,

They are too few and far between, saints from our corner of the globe, our portion of the Body of Christ. But when they do happen, they are impactful. This week we can rejoice as we celebrate the feast day of another good guy who worked among us and has washed his robes white in the blood of the Lamb and made it to the rolls of the sanctified. Wednesday, we celebrate the feast day of Joseph De Veuster, known as Fr. Damien, who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI and now known as Saint Damien of Molokai. The road to canonization for Damien was a little long and at times quite bumpy. But he is a man for our times as he was a strong advocate for the proper care of the sick and treatment of the most vulnerable among us. We need his intercession as we try to rise to the challenge of providing adequate and just health care in our country and face potential epidemics that might again require forms of quarantine.

The papayas and pineapples of Hawaii would be a decided change from the fine chocolates and waffles of Belgium. Shortly before he finished his seminary training in Louvain, Damien volunteered to take his brother’s place (who was already a priest and who had contracted Typhus), on a missionary journey to the Hawaiian Isles. Damien’s brother would never make it to Hawaii and Damien would never return to Belgium. Damien was ordained in the Cathedral in Honolulu and served at various parishes around the Hawaiian Islands. When the local bishop decided that the Leper Colony on the island of Molokai needed a priest, he asked for a rotation of volunteers to spend a few months at a time with the lepers. Damien was one of the first to volunteer and to go. And stay. For good. (Beware when a Bishop asks you to “volunteer, temporarily”! I know.) At 33yrs of age, Damien, like Christ began carrying his cross to Calvary.

The deplorable conditions that he found at the settlement at Kalaupapa, on the Island of Molokai horrified and angered the budding saint. So, he began insisting that his religious community (the Priests of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary) support the new mission on Molokai and that the Kingdom of Hawaii, which had opened the colony and forcibly quarantined people there should do a lot more to ease the suffering of the residents. Damien wrote all these concerns and described the conditions in the colony in a letter he sent to his brother. His brother had the letter published in the Sacred Hearts Community journal and it quickly gained local and then worldwide attention and Damien and the Leper Colony at Kalaupapa became widely known. All unbeknownst to Fr. Damien.

Almost overnight Damien and his mission aroused the empathy of people throughout the world. It also shamed the Hawaiian Monarch and angered Damien’s religious superiors who accused Fr. Damien of so much pride. The struggle for funds, medicine, food, supplies and all the other necessities would continue for the rest of Damien’s life. He was never able to secure a permanent physician, so he instead took up that role along with the role of pastor, parent, confessor, farmer, construction worker, pharmacist, nurse, and undertaker.

During his lifetime and afterwards Fr. Damien would be accused of being “too political” and not sticking to religion. His superiors often thought of him as disobedient and too self-promoting. The Anglican Church, which had been established before the Catholic Church on the islands, resented his popularity and accused him of purposely making their mission look bad. The final insult came after he contracted Leprosy, and he was accused of immoral behavior with women as the reason for becoming infected. After his death Fr. Damien would be harshly criticized by some of the non-Catholic Christians on the island. But Robert Louis Stevenson, a non-Catholic, came to his defense, rebutted his critics in a series of articles that appeared in the NY Times and vindicated the Leper priest. Help does come from unexpected sources!

His passion for justice and his compassion for the suffering were the twin qualities that allowed St. Damien to persevere in a world marked by so much indifference to human suffering. His devotion to the Sacred Heart formed and shaped his heart after the example of the Savior. His complete identification with the suffering, made visible the day he began his homily, “We Lepers”, is a shining imitation of the identification of Jesus’ own suffering for his people. What better example for us priests.

Kalaupapa is now a National Park (though visiting it is limited as some residents still live there). Damien’s figure stands in the US Capital Building’s National Statuary Hall, making him only one of two priests honored among our National Historic Heroes (Do you know the other one?). A nice reminder that the Church often tames the harsh hand of the state. St. Damien is really a man for our times whose example and intercession are most needed at this moment in history when the most vulnerable, the sickliest, the cognitively impaired, the addicted and unconscious, the suicidal among us are often being denied the proper care befitting every human being.

St. Damien of Molokai, Patron of the Afflicted: Pray for us!

Love, Fr. John