A Saint for Our Time | The Introduction to "The Spirit of Father Damien" | Jan De Volder | Ignatius InsightA 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" , [1] 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. [2]

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." [3] 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". [4]

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 lepers?

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 condescending?

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 of saint.

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 time.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, homily at the canonization Mass, St. Peter's Basilica, October 11, 2009 (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009).

[4] "On the Canonization of 5 Saints", Zenit.org, October 11, 2009, http://www.zenit.org/article-27157?l=english.

The Spirit 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.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!