Our Lord said that He was “meek and humble of heart.” Matthew 11:29. Mary sings in her Magnificat that “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Luke 1:46. St. John the Baptist told his followers that “He must increase; I must decrease.” John 3:30. This is where the greatness of the saints lies. They progressively die to themselves so that our Lord can live in, with, and through them. They lose everything to gain everything.
Few people exemplify this as well as St. Damien of Molokai. He began life as an unknown and unnoticed farm boy and ended it as the famed Leper Priest of Molokai. But the world’s fame obscured the truth. By the end of his life, Fr. Jozef Damien de Veuster no longer ministered to the lepers of Molokai. That man had entered so deeply into Christ’s life and that he could say, with St. Paul, that “it is not I but Christ who lives within me.” Gal 2:20.
“It is a great happiness to me whenever I have an opportunity of sending news of myself, of reminding you, my dear parents, that on an island in the midst of the great Pacific, you have a son who loves you and a priest who prays for you…” – Letter by Father Damien to his parents
Jozef de Veuster
St. Damien was born Jozef de Veuster in a small home in Tremeloo, Belgium on January 3, 1840. He was the youngest of seven children and the fourth son. It was expected that little Jozef would eventually become a corn merchant just like his dad.
Known by his nickname “Jef,” he was well suited for his expected calling. Jef learned to work hard and well as he grew up. He learned carpentry and how to undertake physically demanding projects energetically and with vigor. Jef’s personality was strong and he never did anything half-way. However, unknown to all but God, Jef de Veuster was one of the very people susceptible to leprosy.
Jef’s family was religious and his older brother, Auguste, joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Over time, Jef came to desire to follow his brother into the religious life. Jef joined the congregation as a brother in 1860. He took the religious name of Br. Damien.
God, though, wanted Br. Damien to be a priest. Fr. Pamphile began to tutor his natural and religious brother. Br. Damien studied until he had a working knowledge of Latin. It was not easy getting there but Fr. Pamphile taught Br. Damien what he needed to know.
About this time, Fr. Pamphile was selected to go to Hawaii as a missionary. God, though, had different plans. After tickets had been bought, Fr. Pamphile became sick. Br. Damien asked if he could go in Fr. Pamphile’s place. Fr. Pamphile agreed. Br. Damien then wrote to the head of the Congregation asking permission. That was unheard of. But the request was granted.
Br. Damien arrived in Honolulu in March 1864 and was ordained in May. He was assigned to work on Hawaii. He worked there until 1873. This is where Fr. Damien likely contracted leprosy.
“Discoloured patches appear on the skin, especially on the cheeks; and the parts affected lose their feeling. After a time, this discoloration coves the whole body; then ulcers begin to open, mainly at the extremities. The flesh is eaten away, and gives out a fetid smell; even the breath of the leper becomes so foul that the air around is poisoned with it.” – Father Damien
About then, the Hawaiian leprosy epidemic exploded. Father Damien wrote to his family: “Leprosy is beginning to be very prevalent here. There are many men covered with it. . . . The disease is very dangerous because it is highly contagious.” The government responded by quarantining people with leprosy on the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai. One chronicler reported that “[l]epers were hunted by officials, usually white men, with great zeal… whole families took to the hills and caves. Soon there were entire communities living in hiding.”
On Moloka’i, the lepers were essentially left to themselves. They needed help and Fr. Damien volunteered to provide it. He arrived on May 10, 1873, and never left.
Fr. Damien was well-suited for ministry on Molokai. He was vigorous, energetic, and determined to bring Christ to all the people of Molokai, Catholic or not, without distinction. He built things – coffins, houses, water delivery systems, churches, and more. He dug graves, fed the hungry, educated the uneducated, and brought the sacraments, particularly Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist, to the abandoned, suffering children of God on Moloka’i. Father Damien said that “my greatest pleasure is to serve the Lord in his poor children rejected by other people.”
But God wanted more from Fr. Damien. He wanted Fr. Damien to unite himself totally to the Lord alive and present in the lepers of Moloka’i. From the beginning, God invited Fr. Damien unite totally to Christ, the Suffering Servant, present in his poor children. Fr. Damien said “fiat.”
“Be severe toward yourself, indulgent toward others. Have scrupulous exactitude for everything regarding God: prayer, meditation, Mass, administration of the Sacraments. Unite your heart with God… — Father Damien to his notebook
Fr. Damien first noticed leprosy symptoms in 1875 or 1876, but the disease did not emerge full-blown until 1884. He was under no illusions: “Having no doubts about the true nature of the disease, I am calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people. God certainly knows what is best for my sanctification and I gladly repeat: ‘Thy will be done.’” Fr. Damien continued on. Christ was his only consolation. “[H]aving Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content. . . . Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please Him.” As Fr. Damien united more perfectly with Christ, he united more perfectly with his fellow lepers. One Suffering Servant, not two.
St. Damien’s life reveals much about God. It reveals first and foremost that our God is not ‘out there.’ Leprosy devastated the people of Hawaii. It seemed like God was too busy to care; God, if He existed at all, had caught the last train for the coast. But that is not our God. God created a baby in Belgium, spoke into his heart, and asked him to die with Christ so as to live with Christ; to decrease so Christ could increase. God then watched as the baby became a man, a religious brother, and a priest and heard him repeatedly say “yes” to God’s invitation. St. Damien’s greatness was not St. Damien’s; rather, it is the greatness of the God who created St. Damien and through whom He entered totally, completely into the lives of the poor, abandoned outcasts on Moloka’i and through and with them, into Christ’s.