In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien de Veuster, better known as Father Damien of Molokai or Father Damien the Leper, as a saint of the church. His story is probably one of the best known of all the modern saints. I remember reading about him as a child in a book of saints and being moved by the thought of this young priest going willingly in1873 to serve the leper colony on Molokai where he remained until his death in1889 of the disease that he contracted from the people to whom he was ministering. He was 49 when he died. I was always moved by the selfless love he showed organizing the people to help one another, building a church and hospital, laying hundreds of yards of pipe to bring fresh water into the village from a neighboring valley, and building a school for the children. He visited every house in the settlement at least once a week, nursing the sick, administering the sacraments and protecting children who had lost their parents. Without regard for himself, he invited the people into his home, ate with them from the same bowl and shared even his pipe. I remember being particularly moved by the story of the day when, in beginning his homily at Sunday Mass, he began not with his accustomed “You who are lepers” but with “We who are lepers”. When he died he was buried beside the church where his body lay for 47 years until 1936 when, at the request of the Belgian government, it was exhumed and brought back to the country of his birth and placed in a crypt in the church of St. Anthony in Louvain. That church is only about a half a mile from the American College where I studied for the priesthood, and I often went to St. Anthony’s to pray at St. Damien’s tomb. I remember seeing the huge formal photograph of him hanging above the crypt in which his deformed hands and face were already apparent. He was certainly someone who, in imitation of Christ, laid down his life for his friends. May we be inspired by him and ask for his help in the day by day laying down of our lives in the loving service we give to one another.
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