Friday, June 07, 2024

The Cordocentrism of Father Damien and His Congregation

A portrait of Fr. Damien by my Damien High School classmate, Geoffrey Butz

The great Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which we celebrate today, is an opportunity to delight in God’s unspeakable love for us and to respond to His love with an unconditional “Yes.” As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

In the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of self-preservation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world.[1]
Recently my wife Alexandra and I had the privilege of visiting the grave of someone who joined Jesus in the task of love, someone who handed himself over to Him and to the least of his brethren, and someone whose religious charism was ordered towards the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Visiting the grave of Saint Damien of Molokai (1840-1889) was a dream come true. I attended Damien High School in LaVerne, California, named after the great missionary to the lepers long before he was even declared Venerable because the religious community that founded the school was the same as Father Damien’s: the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. One of the requirements in our freshman religion class was to read John Farrow’s Damien the Leper, a riveting account of the saint’s life that I highly recommend. Even the origin of the biography is interesting. John Farrow was a filmmaker and the father of the actress Mia Farrow, who describes her father in the foreword as a believing Catholic despite his chronic womanizing. After Farrow learned about Father Damien as he was wandering about in the South Pacific, he was determined to share the story with a wider audience.
John Farrow, John Wayne, and Lana Turner
Damien the Leper
In the biography we learned that Damien de Veuster was from Flanders, Belgium and that he joined the Sacred Heart (aka Picpus) Fathers in imitation of his older brother; that he was transferred to Hawaii, which was a territory bequeathed to the Sacred Heart Fathers by the Pope; that he served the natives for eight years, learning their language, administering the sacraments, and rooting out bad pagan practices (he once dramatically tore up a voodoo doll of himself to show that witchcraft had no power over a servant of God); that when the bishop of Honolulu asked his priests for volunteers to the notorious leper colony of Molokai, three other men besides Damien bravely stood up but Damien was the one chosen; and that Damien labored tirelessly in the colony under the worst of conditions for sixteen years before succumbing to the disease himself.
And the conditions were indeed the worst. There was no law and order in the colony when he arrived because the police were terrified of the contagious disease: all a leper had to do was rush at a policeman with his open wounds and the latter would flee in terror. Amid unbearable stench (which he used his pipe to counteract), rotting limbs, and grotesque bodies, Damien built several churches and buildings, 2,000 coffins, and a 3.5 mile fresh-water supply. He baptized and buried, and celebrated the liturgical year with great pomp and grandeur (especially Corpus Christi) as a way of inspiring his flock and bringing them consolation.
Alexandra Foley with the great-granddaughter of a man who built churches with Fr. Damien
The Hawaiian authorities had chosen for the location of the colony Kalaupapa, a peninsula on the island of Molokai that is almost impossible to escape without the aid of a ship or plane since it is surrounded either by the sea or steep cliffs that are especially difficult to climb for someone whose limbs are falling off. In the 1940s a cure was finally found for Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is more properly called, and the Hawaiian Department of Health finally ended its policy of containment in 1969, granting Kakaupapa’s patients the option to leave the island. The majority, however, stayed: even though they were no longer contagious, most of their friends and family were gone, and the antibiotic that stopped the leprosy bacillus could not reverse the disfiguring effects of the disease. Incredibly, there are still a few patients left on Kalaupapa to this day: the oldest is 100. When the last patient passes away, the settlement will become a National Park.
The Kalaupapa peninsula and the current location of the settlement
The Visit
Kalaupapa is still run by the Department of Health, and so to visit the settlement we needed a resident to sponsor us and petition the department for permission to come. I contacted the Catholic priest on Kalaupapa (who turned out to be a Sacred Heart Father), and he graciously agreed to help us out. Without his sponsorship, it would have been impossible to buy a ticket for a ride in the local airline’s tiny prop plane to the Kalaupapa airport (which is smaller than some parking lots and did not have a single employee there when we visited). Our host Father Patrick was an affable Irishman who kindly showed us around, as did two sisters from St. Marianne Cope’s Franciscan order, Sr. Barbara Jean and Sr. Alicia.[2]
St. Philomena Church and Father Damien's Grave
Most of the original buildings are long gone because of the power of the elements on these windswept shores to erode and corrupt. But St. Philomena Church, which was standing when Fr. Damien arrived and which he restored and later expanded, is still there. The structure includes holes drilled into the floorboard of the original nave. One of the effects of leprosy is a violent vomiting of black blood. Rather than leave Mass, lepers could now create a funnel with banana leaves and vomit into the holes.
Floorboard with square holes
 Devotion to the Sacred Heart
Damien, as I have mentioned, was a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of the Perpetual Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. The Sacred Heart Fathers model their lives on the four ages of our Lord: His infancy “by the instruction of children and by the formation of youths for the priesthood”; His hidden life “by the exercise of Adoration”; His public life, “by preaching and by missionary work”; His crucified life “by the works of Christian mortification.” Damien’s own imitation of these four ages is captured by four mosaics outside St. Damien of Molokai Church on the topside of the island. The mosaics were made by 93-year-old Sister Dorothy Santos.
Damien mosaics, with Sr. Dorothy
Damien’s religious calling also served him in other ways. It was the custom of the Sacred Hearts to put a funeral pall over the candidate during the profession ceremony. This custom came to his mind when the bishop asked for a volunteer to Molokai. Damien wrote: “So, remembering that on the day of my profession I had already put myself under the funeral pall, I offered myself to his lordship [the bishop] to meet, if he thought it well, this second death.” By a strange coincidence, when someone contracted leprosy in the Middle Ages, a Requiem Mass was held for him, and he attended his own funeral underneath a black canopy near the altar.
Praying at Father Damien’s grave, I noticed an inscription that I had not seen before: V.C.J.S. I later learned that it was the motto of the Sacred Heart Congregation: Vivat Cor Jesu Sacratissimum, Long live the most Sacred Heart of Jesus! It is a fit sentiment for the feast today, and every day.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One, p. 69. 
[2] St. Marianna Cope and her sisters came to the settlement as Fr. Damien lay dying of leprosy and made even more improvements. She was canonized in 2012, three years after Fr. Damien.

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