Sunday, February 24, 2008

Damien of Molokai

I watched the 1999 film based on Father Damien's life the other day in proximity to a provocative post of Deacon Scott's, "The Last Judgment- the decisive image of hope, not terror". It is a reflection on Spe Salvi, and I will just quote his quote from the Pope's most recent encyclical (43), though the entire post is worth reading and thinking over:
God has given himself an 'image': in Christ who was made man. In him who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing.
The thirst for justice is evident in the life of someone like Father Damien. He volunteered to go to the island of Molokai, a desperate place where the sick were consigned for the remainder of their lives, without adequate housing and medical care. To be sent there was a death sentence, since the residents were put on permanent quarantine. Not only leprosy, but typhoid and smallpox had scourged the Hawaiian Islands, and up to 20% of the population contracted these life-threatening illnesses.

Once Father Damien arrived and saw the conditions, he spent the rest of his life ministering to his flock of some thousand inhabitants. He tended the sick, built hospitals and constructed coffins with his own hands. He contended with the rogues in the place who stole and kidnapped girls. The priest was able to avail of connections in Europe to get the story out of the needs of these people and was able to persuade the royalty of Hawaii to have compassion on them.

The hardest part to understand is the injustice with which Damien was treated by his own superiors, even more than the local thugs or indifferent government bureaucrats. The Lord promised persecutions, and Damien received these from his own brothers. This didn't stop him from insisting that he needed sisters to take care of the orphans, who lived there like feral cats, practically out of contact with caring adults. He begged for a means to have confession for himself, when he wasn't allowed to return to the mainland, and the film shows him confessing in French from a boat to his bishop. When he became ill with leprosy himself, he asked for a replacement. For all these things he continually prayed, at times thinking he wasn't heard. Most egregiously, he was accused of impropriety with the native women, since some still believed that leprosy was a stage of syphilis. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who came to his defense when some pastors spread accusations against the priest.

The motivations of the superiors can be difficult to fathom, as in the film The Mission. It may be simply jealousy for what one cannot do oneself. A young doctor who visited Molokai admitted to Father Damien that he could not stay and work because he was getting married. But he promised to return, and he did so often. His humility about his capacity allowed him to be a friend rather than a hindrance to the priest's work.

The wheat and tares grow up together; without this, there would be no freedom. Even if a saint can spend his or her life bringing a bit of justice and love to others through adhesion to the suffering Christ, then the promise has to be much greater than this for all those who did not receive good in their lifetimes. This hope points to a complete answer to all the need of humanity.

1 comment:

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

Thanks Sharon for this great post. I cannot tell you what a great thing it was to read it on Sunday morning. I was struck by what you wrote about Fr. Damien having to struggle with his own superiors. I know I shouldn't be, but I am amazed at how many of the holy ones' heroic virtue extended to dealing with priests, religious superiors, and bishops. I think of the actual cruelty that the poor St. Bernadette, who was no doubt the victim of domestic violence, experienced at the hands of her pastor.

Thank God for people who keep their eyes on Jesus crucified, who unite all their sufferings with the precious suffering of our Lord, who was betrayed and abandoned by his disciples.