Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > September > 'We Lepers'
As the Roman Catholic Church recognizes Hawaii's hero as a saint, what should we think about his chief posthumous critic?
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It has been a good year for my old home state of Hawaii: it started the year with one of its own becoming President, and on October 11 one of its most famous heroes will officially become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even among Hawaii's most Protestant Protestants, Damien de Veuster is praised as a man who exemplified incarnational, sacrificial ministry. The Belgian priest did not first go to the islands to minister to the Hansen's disease victims of the Kalaupapa colony on Molokai, but in 1873 he eagerly volunteered to minister.
"My Lord, remembering that I was placed under the pall on the day of my religious profession, thereby to learn voluntary death is the beginning of new life," he told his bishop, "here I am, ready to bury myself alive among these unfortunate people, several of whom are personally known to me."
Damien was not he first to volunteer to help the settlement (whose residents were not there voluntarily: isolation of those who had contracted Hansen's disease was enforced by law from 1866 to 1969). But he seems to have been the first to work with the assumption that he too would contract the illness. Where other workers had left medicine, supplies, and food at a distance for the patients to use, Damien's work almost ensured infection. "The manual labor of the roughest kind which he did for the lepers, to make them more comfortable, could not fail to produce frequently cuts, punctures and abrasions, by which the danger of inoculation was greatly increased," a 1904 item in the Journal of the American Medical Association explained.
"You know my disposition," Damien wrote two days after arriving in Kalaupapa. "I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers. The harvest is ripe."
A bit more than a decade after his arrival, Damien discovered an early sign of infection: he had blistered his feet in a scalding footbath, but did not feel any pain.
"From henceforth I am forbidden to come to Honolulu again, because I am attacked by leprosy," he wrote his bishop. "Its marks are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows begin to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but. I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done."
From some of his earliest days in the community, Damien had identified directly with his parishioners and patients. "I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say we lepers, not my brethren, as in Europe." He continued to serve among them as one of them until his death on April 15, 1889.
Damien's life, ministry, and death are certainly inspiring. But as his canonization draws nearer, I've been thinking more about the role criticism has played in both his life and in his fame. Nearly every biographical sketch talks about some kind of between Damien and other religious leaders. Honestly, much of this seems to be mere boilerplate for modern depictions of heroic Christians–they must always be in conflict with other religious leaders. Still, the depictions are not wholly unwarranted. Damien apparently exasperated some church leaders and government workers with his repeated requests for help. And when word of his work began to be publicized (largely due to the publication of one of his letters in Belgium) and supporters began sending him money, some Catholic officials reportedly worried that he was becoming prideful.
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