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A Saint for Our Time | The Introduction to The Spirit
of Father Damien: The Leper Priest—A Saint for Our Times | Jan De Volder | Ignatius Insight
Father Damien has been canonized, 120 years after his death. Already
during his lifetime, the Belgian priest enjoyed world renown for his holiness.
The extraordinary witness of his voluntary banishment with the lepers of
Molokai spoke to the nineteenth-century imagination. When news of his death
came on April 15, 1889, the Times of
London demanded that the world not have to wait forty years for his
beatification. Yet it took more than a century for the formal process of his
beatification and canonization to be completed. The Catholic Church prefers to
take her time, and Father Damien's temperament did not correspond perfectly to
the traditional image of a "pious and holy" life. He indeed was no
"porcelain saint" ,  as Belgium's Cardinal Godfried Danneels has
put it. It is probably due to the tireless advocacy of Mother Teresa of
Calcutta, who has meanwhile been beatified herself, that Damien's canonization
happened at all.
The canonization Mass, celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on October I I, 2009, in
Saint Peter's Basilica, was attended by thousands of pilgrims from around the
world, including King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium; Herman Van Rompuy,
then the Belgian prime minister and soon to be elected the first president of
the Council of the European Union; and several cabinet ministers. U.S.
president Barack Obama sent a presidential delegation that was headed by the
U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and included the bishop of Honolulu and a U.S.
senator from Hawaii. Also in attendance were leprosy patients from Molokai. The
procession to place Damien's relic on the altar included the Hawaiian woman whose
recovery from cancer a decade earlier was attributed by the Vatican to Damien's
miraculous intercession. 
In his homily, the pope said that Father Damien's missionary activity, which
gave him so much joy, reached its peak in charity. "Let us remember before
this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and
makes it desirable. Following in St Paul's footsteps, St Damien prompts us to
choose the good warfare, not the kind that brings division but the kind that
gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy
that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the
charity of presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity." 
Following the Eucharistic celebration, the pope went out into Saint Peter's
Square to greet some forty thousand additional faithful who could not fit
inside the basilica. He urged them to pray and help those involved in the
battle against leprosy and "other forms of leprosy that are due to lack of
love because of ignorance and cowardice". 
A lot is known about that noble figure and his missionary activity. Damien left
behind 212 letters, which already in the first year after his death were
collected together. Every time period has shown interest in him, right up until
today. Countless biographies in numerous languages have been published, while
theater performances and films about his life have been made. Is there anything
new to say about him?
Perhaps there is. In this book we go in search of the spirit behind Father
Damien's extraordinary life. We seek to understand why today, at the start of
the twenty-first century, he remains so appealing. In 1936, when his body was
returned to Louvain, Belgium, via San Francisco and Antwerp, his appeal was
understandable. During the five days that Damien's body reposed in San
Francisco's cathedral, a steady flow of visitors paid homage, while in Belgium
unprecedented crowds witnessed the transfer of his body to his native land. The
immense popular interest fit seamlessly into the Catholic mass culture of the
time in Europe and suited the nationalist feeling that wanted Belgium's own
hero to rest on the country's own soil. Afterward the transfer drew a lot of
criticism. Did Damien not belong to the Hawaiians? Or to all the earth's
But with time, Damien's star has not faded. His witness seems to have become
even more powerful. How did he survive the secularization of the West? Is that
perhaps not the greatest miracle of his life?
Why did Belgians, who in the past few decades have in large numbers stopped
practicing their traditional Christian faith, nonetheless choose Damien as
their "Greatest Belgian" in 2005? Is that not remarkable for a man
who, other than a big heart and great faith, did not have a lot going for him,
whether intellectually or in his appearance?
What is there in his life that speaks so deeply to our contemporaries? Not just
to people in Belgium and the United States, but across all national borders?
Not just to Christians, but also to people of other faiths and of no faith?
Damien's popularity transcends many boundaries. What is it in his life that
strikes a universal chord?
Perhaps his life speaks to us because it confronts postmodern men with their
flaws and weaknesses. Damien was a man who was all of a piece. How starkly does
that contrast with the often fragmented existence of our contemporaries? Damien
was a man who made decisive choices and remained faithful to them until the
end. What a contrast with our indecisiveness. Contemporary men want to try a
bit of everything, to have as many experiences and get as many kicks as
possible. What does Damien's self-giving to the outcasts of humanity teach us
about what makes a human life worth living? Damien was a doer, someone who was
not afraid to get his hands dirty: he built churches, houses, and schools and
cared for the lepers with his own hands. But most of all, he built up the
community of God amid the poorest. Perhaps that also speaks to the heart of our
contemporary Church, which all too often, especially in the West, has become a
Church obsessed by administration.
Damien was through and through a child of his age. He shared the missionary
dreams of the Church of his time as well as the civilizing work carried out by
the expanding Western world. After decolonization, that strong missionary
tradition was criticized. For was the missionary not the spiritual accomplice
of the colonizer, trampling often—with the best intentions—valuable
local cultures? Was the missionary's approach not paternalistic and thus
In some cases there might indeed be something to such accusatIons. Yet
simplistic critiques have a way of dying down again. Our contemporaries appear
to be a little more open to the incredible adventure that induced ordinary young
men and women to sacrifice their lives for people on the other side of the
world. One sees that many missionaries, in their loving approach, did not
regard thelr flocks as savages but as fellow human beings whom they often
deeply loved. More than just the gaining of souls, their mission also focused
on the full well-being of the local population. Damien was a pioneer in this
regard, or rather a real missionary with his heart in the right place.
Moreover, he evolved: if at the start of his mission he had aimed mostly at
winning as many souls as possible for the true Catholic faith, gradually his
compassion and love for all men grew, including for those who ultimately did
not embrace his faith.
Damien's dedication to the outcasts of Molokai, his efforts to introduce new
medical techniques, showed that he deeply valued the material side of life and
bodily health. Yet he was more than a development worker. He shared his very
life with those pariahs on the margins of the world, treating them with his own
hands, not hesitating to touch them with love, until finally he became a leper
himself and died from the disease.
With his life, and the celebrity that came his way, he put leprosy on the map.
His contribution has been important in generating the energy needed to conquer
the disease and eradicate it—a battle that still has not been entirely
won. Above all, it showed something universal, something essential in
Christianity: namely, that in love for the poorest, lived as self-giving until
death, lies a road to salvation. Neither Islam nor Buddhism produces this kind
The Christian martyr contrasts sharply with the martyrs exhibited in various
extremist religious movements today. The latter look with contempt on their own
lives in order to destroy the lives of others and bring them down into the
grave with them. The Christian martyr gives his own life in order to save the
lives of others. It is a testimony that depends not only on events, on
context—it is a universal testimony that withstands the ravages of time
and transcends space.
For that reason, it is perhaps a good thing that Rome waited more than a
century for Father Damien's beatification and canonization. For his
extraordinary witness has become even more powerful as the historical context
of his life has become further removed from us. Father Damien was a man of his
time. With his canonization he becomes a universal example, a saint for our
 Cardinal Godfried Danneels, "Pater Damien op weg naar
heiligverklaring—Kardinal Danneels dankt de paus [Father Damien to be
canonized—Cardinal Danneels thanks the pope]", Brussels, July 3,
2008, Press office of the Belgian Bishops Conference.
 In addition to Father Damien, four other blesseds were canonized at the
Eucharistic Celebration: Rafael Arnáiz Barón (1911-9138), a Spanish member of
the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance; Zygmunt Szszesny Felinski
(1822-1895), a Polish archbishop and founder of the Congregation of the
Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary; Francesco Coll y Guitart (1912-1875),
Spanish priest of the Order of the Friar Preachers and the founder of the
Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
Mary; and Marie de la Croix (Jeanne) Jugan (1792-1879), French virgin and
founder of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 Pope Benedict XVI, homily at the canonization Mass, St. Peter's Basilica,
October 11, 2009 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009).
 "On the Canonization of 5 Saints", Zenit.org, October 11, 2009,
of Father Damien: The Leper Priest—A Saint for Our Times
by Jan De Volder
The Spirit of Father Damien (E-Book) -- Electronic Book Download
Foreword by John L. Allen, Jr.
Father Damien, famous for his missionary work with exiled lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, is finally Saint Damien. His sanctity took 120 years to become
officially recognized, but between his death in 1889 and his canonization in 2009--amid creeping secularization and suspicion of the missionary spirit he so much embodied--Fr.
Damien De Veuster never faded from the world's memory. What kept him there? What keeps him there now?
To find an answer, Belgian historian and journalist Jan De Volder sifted through Father Damien's personal correspondence as well as the Vatican archives. With careful and
even-handed expertise, De Volder follows Father Damien's transformation from the stout, somewhat haughty missionary of his youth, bounding from Europe to Hawaii and
straight into seemingly tireless priestly work, to the humble and loving shepherd of souls who eventually succumbed to the same disease that ravaged his flock.
De Volder finds that--as spiritual father, caretaker, teacher, and advocate--Father Damien accomplished many heroic feats for these poor outcasts. Yet the greatest gift he
gave them was their transformation from a disordered, lawless throng exiled in desperate anarchy into a living community built on Jesus Christ, a community in which they learned
to care for one another.
Every generation seems to have its own image of this world-famous priest. Already during his life on Molokai and at his death in 1889, many considered him a holy man. Even
today, in the highly secularized Western world, he is widely admired. In 2005 his native Belgium honored him with the title "the greatest Belgian" in polling conducted by their
public broadcasting service. Statues honor his memory in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and at the entrance to the Hawaiian State Capitol
in Honolulu. In 1995, in the presence of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II beatified him in Brussels, Belgium; and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in St.
Peter's Basilica in Rome. Today Father Damien is the unofficial patron of outcasts and those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.
De Volder contends that the common thread running through the saint's life, the spirit of Father Damien that so speaks to the world, is at once uniquely Christian, fully
human, and as important today as ever before.
Jan De Volder lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium. He has an MA in Romance Literature and Languages and a PhD in Social and Religious History. He is
political editor of the Flemish Catholic weekly Tertio. Each week he writes articles on religion, culture, politics, and society. As such, he often comments on
Church and social issues on radio and television. He is an active member of the Community of Sant'Egidio.
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