With so much talk and reflection about Covid-19, it’s good reminding ourselves that our world has been here before. Think of tuberculosis in Ireland. Think of smallpox, Ebola, Rabies, HIV, and the tragedy and loss of life associated with all of these. Think too of the great scourge of biblical times and beyond, leprosy (now called Hansen Disease). Just as we have scourges today like Covid -19, in the past too have we have had heroic front line workers, and in the case of leprosy, one front line worker shines out brighter than all the others, a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary - Fr Damien the leper priest of Molokai. St Damien was canonised by Pope Benedict in 2009.
by Ultan Naughton sscc (Ireland-England)
In the days before Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Damien arrived to a vision of hell on the island of Molokai in 1873. Here lepers were dumped off boats, often far from the shore, and left to fend for themselves - often limbless, often blind, with no basic sanitation, not enough food, no proper accommodation, no healthcare, no public order or civic structure.
Such was the scene, the poor lepers, because of their disabilities, were unable to even bury the dead, except in shallow graves, which the wild animals would later dig up. What must that first night have been like, under a Pandanus tree, on an island described as a living cemetery?
From his arrival Damien immediately set about its transformation. It became famous, in no small part, thanks to the worldwide spread of what he was doing and famous people like Robert Louis Stevenson. Damien built accommodation and orphanages, churches and public buildings with his bare hands. He formed a band and got a choir together from the lepers whose vocal chords were destroyed or who had no fingers or hands. It was still sweet music and sounds, that gave them dignity and worth.
From the beginning he referred to all his charges as ‘we lepers’. He was ecumenical long before most of us knew what it meant. He bandaged the lepers wounds, cleaned their houses, made their beds, cooked their food, ate from the same pot as the lepers. He smoked a pipe to hide the smell of the rotting flesh and maggot infected sores. He built their coffins and he buried the dead in what he called the ‘garden of the dead’. A German Protestant traveller who wrote to a Berlin newspaper in 1883 stated: ‘Only a Catholic priest has entered into this hell in which the lepers live….He lives amongst the dying and the desperate…Fellow travellers of all nations, should you pass in front of the rock of Molokai, salute him!’ Damien contracted leprosy and died of the illness at aged 45 in 1889.
Damien, like all great people, while alive and even in death, had to put up with slander and accusations from the government, his opponents and even at times his own religious community. Damien never flinched is his determination to help the outcasts of his day, and he single handedly brought worldwide attention to the plight of leprosy patients, stirring up a renewed focus on finding a cure. He didn’t have the luxury of modern science, technology or communication to help him.
Today leprosy is a curable disease, but unfortunately many around our world, mainly in Africa and Asia, still suffer. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 208,619 new cases globally in 2018 from 159 countries. The disease continues to affect the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes. Much like what we know about Covid 19, leprosy, it is believed, is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth during close contact. Unlike Covid, the incubation period of the disease is 5 years. Damien’s heroism invites all of us, Pope Benedict said at his canonisation, to “open our eyes towards the ‘leprosies’ that disfigure the humanity of our brothers and sisters, and that today still call, more than for our generosity, for the charity of our serving presence”. Damien was a priest, a religious and a missionary. He gives example and inspires all of us today who are caught up in a worldwide pandemic. When he realised he had leprosy, he writes that ‘no, I do not want to be cured if the price is my departure and the abandonment of my labours’ and ‘I will die in the same way and of the same sickness as my afflicted sheep’.
St Damien has much to teach us of reaching out, especially in a time of great crisis and uncertainty, of trust in divine providence, of devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, of centering our life in the Eucharist and of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In his personal diary in 1883 he wrote: ‘The Eucharist is the bread which gives us the strength we need to be able to turn to the more repulsive tasks; it is also a remedy against the aversion one can feel towards a ministry that is often both terrible and disheartening to others’.
For all who are struggling today, as we prepare for the feast day of St Damien, let us recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi: ‘The political and journalistic world’ (we can add scientific world too I’m sure) ‘can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. It is worthwhile to look for the source of such heroism’. For Damien, it was a simple expression from the founders of our Congregation that always resonated with him: ‘In Jesus we find everything: his birth, his life, and his death. This is our Rule’.