The Word Among Us

October 2009 Issue

God’s Athlete

St. Damien of Molokai lived his calling in a very physical, sacramental way.

By: J. Peter Nixon

God’s Athlete: St. Damien of Molokai lived his calling in a very physical, sacramental way. by J. Peter Nixon

The most famous photograph we have of him was taken just a few weeks before his death.

It depicts a priest in a faded black cassock, wearing a battered hat whose sides are held up by string. His black beard is thick and unruly, shot through with patches of grey and white. The flesh of his hands and face is mottled and marked with sores, signs of the disease that would soon take his life.

The image is well known because many feel it captures the essence of Fr. Damien de Veuster, who lived among those suffering from leprosy—now known as Hansen’s Disease—and eventually contracted the disease himself. It depicts a body weakened by age and disease, a body “poured out as a libation” (Philippians 2:17) in the service of others.

This photograph, though, tells only part of Damien’s story. It shows him in a period of physical decline. Yet if there was anything characteristic about Damien’s life, it was his extraordinary physical gifts, which remained with him until almost the very end. Damien felt called to put those gifts to use as a missionary priest willing to test his body against ever greater demands in the service of the gospel. Gavan Daws, author of Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai, aptly described him as “God’s athlete.”

When God Calls. Baptized as Joseph de Veuster shortly after his birth in 1840, Damien grew up on a small farm near the city of Louvain in Belgium. Three of his eight siblings entered religious life, but because Joseph had shown a unique capacity to handle the physical demands of farm labor, his father hoped he would follow that path. Unusually strong and healthy, he was able to work for hours without visible signs of fatigue.

Joseph, though, felt called to follow the example of an older brother who had entered the missionary Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and taken the religious name Pamphile. His parents consented, and on January 2, 1859, he entered the congregation, taking the name Damien, a third–century saint and martyr known for his work among the sick.

Damien approached religious life with the same physical vigor he had brought to farming. Once when workers were wondering how to deal with a tall, dangerously decayed chimney on the seminary grounds, he simply scaled it himself and disassembled it brick by brick.

Send Me! Damien longed to test himself against the rigors of mission work. He prayed every day before a picture of the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier. In 1863, the Sacred Hearts’ mission in the Hawaiian islands sent word that more men were needed. Damien’s brother, Pamphile, was chosen but contracted typhus before he could depart.

Damien seized his opportunity and offered himself instead. Perhaps taken by the poetry of the suggestion, the congregation’s leaders agreed, and Damien soon found himself on a three-masted sailing ship bound from Europe to the Hawaiian islands. Ever the risk taker, he did not hesitate to climb high into the rigging during the voyage to discuss religion with members of the crew.

Damien was ordained to the priesthood shortly after he arrived in 1864. At his first Mass, the thought that he was ministering to those who had only recently embraced Christianity filled him with joy. “Those who surrounded me were new Christians . . . it seemed to me that [my heart] would melt like wax when I first passed the bread of life to a hundred people there.” He began signing his letters to his parents “J. Damien de Veuster, Missionary Priest.”

The Sacrifice of Self. Damien was initially assigned to Hawaii, the largest island in the chain, and given pastoral care of Puna, a district covering hundreds of miles of territory. A year later he was assigned to the even larger district of Kohala-Hamuku, whose fewer than one thousand Catholics were spread out over a thousand square miles. Once asked where he lived, Damien pointed to his saddle and said, “This is my home.”

Rather than wearing him down, the challenge seemed to energize him. “I am always in the best of health,” he wrote to Pamphile. “It seems to me that, physically, I am now perfectly adjusted to the active life of the missionary.” He conceded to his brother that of all the challenges he faced, the “hardest of all is to preserve, in the midst of a thousand miseries and vexations, the spirit of meditation and prayer.”

In 1873, a challenge of a different kind presented itself. The local bishop was concerned about Catholics on the island of Molokai—specifically, those at the leprosy settlement on one of its peninsulas. The settlement had been established in 1866 to help control the spread of the disease by segregating those afflicted with it. With no priest in residence, Catholics there often died without benefit of the sacraments.

Damien and three other priests volunteered to live at the settlement, suggesting that they rotate through every few months to minimize their chance of being infected. Damien volunteered for the first rotation.

Within days of his arrival, on May 10, 1873, Damien wrote his superiors to ask that he might be “the priest privileged to gather the harvest of the Lord” on Molokai. “You know my disposition,” he wrote the bishop. “I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers.”

Making Christ Present. Damien’s residing at the colony generated publicity throughout the islands. At that time, the only Christian ministers there were two men whose wives had become infected and had been forced to move to the settlement. Protestant ministers elsewhere in Hawaii—generally married men with children—had been unwilling to relocate among the lepers. The new priest’s presence was a physical—you might even say sacramental—way of mediating Christ’s love to those who had been made outcasts by their society. It definitely made an impact.

Naturally, Damien threw himself into the work with vigor. Over the course of a week, he would visit each of the sick and preside over a number of funerals. He was also a tireless evangelist. Within months of his arrival, he had added four hundred catechumens to the existing population of two hundred Catholics.

In addition to meeting the people’s spiritual needs, Damien took on a wide range of other tasks, including construction, repairs, and farming. Ambrose Hutchinson, a Hawaiian who arrived at the settlement as a teenager, described Damien as “a vigorous, forceful man with a generous heart in the prime of life and a jack of all trades, carpenter, mason, baker, farmer, medico, and nurse, no lazy bone in the makeup of his manhood, busy from morning till nightfall.”

The Body of Christ. Damien was not blind to the risks of catching leprosy and tried to take precautions. At first, he slept in the open air under a tree rather than share quarters with one of the colony’s residents. He asked a friend to send a pair of heavy boots and ordered a clean new saddle from Honolulu. When the lumber for his house arrived, he built it himself without help.

In the end, though, Damien was a priest, and his understanding of sacramental ministry required physical contact with those to whom he was ministering. Distributing Communion required him to place the host on a person’s tongue. When celebrating the Anointing of the Sick, he had to apply the chrism to hands and feet that had often withered into stumps. He was also regularly called upon to treat and bandage wounds and once even amputated a diseased foot.

Damien’s ministry to the bodies of those he served drew strength from his devotion to the body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. “Without the constant presence of our Divine Master, I would never be able to cast my lot with that of the lepers,” he wrote.

During his almost sixteen years on Molokai, Damien often felt isolated, even abandoned. When deprived of access to a fellow priest for long periods, he would make a solitary confession before the Blessed Sacrament. “I find my consolation in the only companion who does not leave me—our Divine Master in the Holy Eucharist. It is at the foot of the altar that I find relief from spiritual pain.”

Imitating the Mystery. Leprosy has a long latency period, and it is quite possible that Damien was infected within a few years after he arrived. He showed no sign of the disease, however, for almost a decade. In the early 1880s, he began to feel pains in his leg, and by the end of 1883 he had lost feeling on the outside of his left foot. By September of 1884, the diagnosis was definitive.

Damien responded to his leprosy with a renewed burst of physical activity. His diagnosis, once it became public, attracted worldwide attention and brought a flood of charitable donations. With the population of the settlement continuing to increase, he supervised the construction of new housing, including two orphanages. He tested new treatments, some of which gave him temporary relief from his symptoms.

Publicly, Damien accepted his condition with equanimity. He wrote to Pamphile that “the sacrifice of my health, which God has been pleased to accept . . . is after all quite light and agreeable to me.” Privately, however, he struggled with the loss of his physical powers. The lack of personal support from some of his superiors affected him as well. Those visiting and working with him at the settlement sometimes found him severely depressed.

Almost invariably, though, the needs of his people would pull Damien from his emotional and physical lows. Less than six months before his death, he could be found on the roof of his church making repairs. By early 1889, though, his decline had become irreversible. He had hoped to be able to see another Easter, but it was not to be. He died on April 15, four days before Good Friday. He was laid to rest in the simple graveyard next to St. Philomena’s Church, in the company of the many hundreds of those to whom he had ministered.

In the Rite of Ordination to the priesthood, the bishop tells those about to be ordained that “your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it to Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice that is offered sacramentally through your hands. Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.”

It is fitting that in this Year of the Priest, the church will canonize one who so deeply embodied these words.

J. Peter Nixon lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and two children.