Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Highest Go Lowest

Father John J. Lombardi

He was a real man, a saintly man, a man of God.

As a youth he was handsome, but grew older and disfigured, gradually becoming grisly and unsightly…He was born comfortable in the world, but then later lived in a sort of poverty-filled commune and Golgotha-like-exile… Physically, he was rugged, strong, sturdy and stable, but the ravages of leprosy caused suffering and death at an early age. Who was he, this man? Blessed Damien, "the Leper Priest".

In this weekend's Bible readings, from the book of Leviticus, lepers are presented to the priests as "unclean"; and in St. Mark's Gospel, a leper daringly goes to Jesus and is healed. The High Priest Christ dramatically embraces the lowly and befriends the most outcast of people, a leper. This is what the man Damien did--no less: he dignified the alienated leper's lives and brought them God's love, human acceptance, and the solidarity of the Catholic Faith. He was not haughty or "above it all".

In an age when we commonly mythologize the Bible and dismiss it's literal meaning as not applicable to our circumstances-Damien, in his time, did not discount Bible stories like we hear and read on this Sunday, and he neither failed to apply them to daily life. Rather, he found out about persons with leprosy, sought them out, lived with them, healed them, and eventually died among them.

Who was he, this man, "the Leper Priest"? He was born Joseph DeVeuster, the seventh of eight children, in 1840, Tremeloo, Belgium. He entered the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1859. He longed to go "to the missions" and was eventually sent to Hawaii in 1864, and was ordained a priest that year. He labored there nine years riding a horse, canoeing, hiking over volcanoes, all to minister to God's flock and convert souls for God. This was the lifelong mission of this man of God; he never wavered from it. Fr Damien then volunteered for the "leper colony" of Molokai, arriving there May 10, 1873 (his feast day, after Pope John Paul beatified him). He arrived on the Island only with his breviary (prayer book), and spent his first nights sleeping under a pandanus tree as his "rectory". Here the young missionary opened his soul to human misery-victims of leprosy whose bodies were ravaged, their limbs torn off and decaying, dead bodies rotting on the bare earth, unable to be buried; and wandered amongst the sulphur-like smells of rotting flesh, and faces scarred by the dreaded disease. Worse, all these victims were shunned by the government and world, even by priests and religious authorities, and lived on a small spit of land on Molokai's foreboding peninsula, surrounded by great sea cliffs, rising two-thousand feet, and a ceaselessly roaring, and merciless ocean. Though God's nature was beautiful, the humanity was stiflingly horrid.

Amidst tremendous challenges, material deprivation, unable to make a regular confession, loneliness, and the chaos of the lepers' disheveled lives there, Fr. Damien began ministering to them, one by one, eventually gathering them into church for Mass and other services. Out this human anarchy and bleak hopelessness Damien eventually taught these persons with leprosy to sing Mozart at Mass and chant Latin Christmas songs to visitors! There was no room for self-pity on this Island. He built huts for them to live in, dug their graves (on average, there was a death about every other day), and formed a Christian burial association: he dignified their sickened and despairing lives while on Earth, helping them to become Children of God, and he also dignified their deaths. They were no longer walking skeletons; they were his saintly people.

We can gain many lessons form this man's heroic life: Lesson I: Damien was a man of God and not just a social worker or mere humanitarian (although he certainly appeals to this streak in many). Jesus Himself counsels: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and He will add everything unto you" (Mt. 6:33). When Damien, and we, put God first, the Lord will help us to help others-- not the other way around. For example, read below a personal journal of how Damien became Blessed Damien-take a queue: (selections from the book, Holy Man-Father Damien of Molokai, by Gavan Daws): "5 am--Get up - go to the church as soon as possible. Morning prayer-adoration and meditation until 6:30 Mass. Instruction. Thanksgiving till quarter to Eight. Then take care of one and another thing for the good of the faithful. 8 o'clock breakfast-followed by a little talk and other domestic business. 9 o'clock-small hours-under the waranda. 9:30-- spiritual reading followed by study or letter-writing till noon. 12 o'clock lunch. After lunch visit the sick and the Christians in general---so as to see every week all that goes on in each house in my district---If I can get back by 5 o'clock-say vespers and do housework. 6 o'clock. Dinner. At first dusk rosary breviary---and evening prayer. Between 8 and 10 o'clock bed" (p. 105). Wow! Heroic.

Notice: his emphasis on prayer, spiritual reading, a continual loving and experiential encounter with God-this is what is most important, demanded and evident in his life. Ask yourself: are you imitating the same thirst and love? As a disciple in the Communion of the Saints, look at it this way: your "input" should be the same as Damien's-the sacred desire and thirst which you pour forth for God should be no less intense and focused. However, your "output" may/will be different: you are not Mother Teresa or Fr Damien, your state of life and situation are different, and so your situation and fruits will/may be differ, too. However, don't make the automatic and illogical conclusion, that you are not called to be a saint or love God and neighbor as much as Damien. Become holy yourself-right where you, just as Damien did. Ask for and cultivate the same thirst for God he attained!

Lesson II: "Whether you eat or your drink, do everything for the Lord " (I Cor 10:31) How did Damien become holy amidst so much suffering and starkness? He offered up everything for God. We call this sanctification of time and work-don't leave anything outside of God's providence or your pursuit of holiness-everything can become holy. Damien made a mundane life mystical: "At one time or another, Damien had a part in the laying of water pipes, the construction of a new road from Kalawao village to Kalaupapa, the blasting of rocks at the landing place to make better access for boats. If huts were blown down by the high winds of winter, he rebuilt them. He made coffins and dug graves, if there was no one else to do it. And, both in the huts and at the hospital, he practiced his amateur brand of medicine. He cleaned and bandaged sores, prescribed pills and simple drugs, and---once at least---amputated a gangrenous foot, though none too neatly, according to a visiting doctor who saw the result shortly afterward" (p. 111)…Everything became an opportunity for him to encounter God, and sacrificially serve his neighbor. How can you become likewise?

Lesson III--Heroic Holiness: the saints practiced virtues and faith in heroic ways. We Americans, today, perhaps with excess wealth, power and technology, are sometimes accustomed to lukewarmness regarding our Faith-lives. The saints always aimed higher, by having heavenly goals. Witness Damien's intense aspirations: "The memory of your past infidelities must move you at each present moment to acts of humility and contrition, with the renewing of firm vows for the future. Be severe toward yourself, indulgent toward others. Have a scrupulous exactitude for everything regarding God; that is to say, in prayer, meditation, the holy service, the administration of the sacraments. Unite your heart with God; and especially, in the midst of temptation, protest ceaselessly that you would die instantly rather than consent to the least venial sin. May passion lead you to whisper these words continually: "Cupio dissolve et esse cum Christo." I wish to be dissolved and to be with Christ. To stave off consent to sin, remember the invisible judgment of God, who watches and knows all the actions of your free will. Be good, vigilant; remember always your three vows, by which you are dead to the things of the world. All that you have is only for you to use, not your personal property. Death to the pleasures of the flesh: purity makes you like an angel; impurity makes a devil out of a priest; no sensuality, no looking for ease. Death to all the caprices of your own will: as with the corpse, let your superiors do what they think best with you…. Remember always the immutability of God, and imitate it by a patience in the face of all tests. Remember always that God is eternal, and work courageously in order one day to be united with him forever" (p. 117)…Nothing lukewarm there. What is sterile in your spiritual life? How and when and where can you "repair it" and become more intensely desirous of Divine Union?

Lesson IV-Solidarity with the Suffering: St. Paul said in First Corinthians (11:1) "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ." And Damien did. He imitated Paul's beautiful, mysterious admonition.: "I rejoice in my sufferings for for your sake, and in my flesh I fill up what was lacking in Christ's" (Col 1:21) . Damien became an icon of the Lord Jesus and St.Paul-he truly did imitate them. Because of his love of the lepers Damien embraced them wholeheartedly; and he eventually became one of them. He became afflicted with the disease and began a torturous path to suffocation, blindness and death. So, no longer would he preach, "You lepers…" , he would later say, "We lepers..." Witness Damien's last days:

"To be a priest, and especially the priest of Kalawao, was to live and move, physically and spiritually, in the territory between life and death, trying by teaching and example to show others the way to make the passage. His body had always been, and still was---despite the now constant pain in his legs---almost furiously alive. He was, then, the living father of a family alive and yet dead, dead yet alive. This ambiguity, productive of a spiritual tension that he somehow managed to translate into physical energy, was as much as anything the reason for Damien's staying at Kalawao. He had chosen to make his whole life a mortification of the flesh, by surrounding himself with the mortified flesh of others. In his chosen land of exile, awaiting the dissolution of his body, he was trying to come to his own understanding of life and death" (p. 118)…Ask: How can I serve others-especially the poor, the sick and the dying? What am I afraid of in serving others-esp those who seemingly intimidate me with a physical or emotional disease or disturbance? Just how heroic will my love be for Jesus in His disguises?… Meditations--Metaphysical: How can I look thru the sometimes ugly, and sometimes beautiful, visible world, like Damien, into the Invisible World of God, Love and Light?...Moral: Like Blessed Damien, how can I help those who appear disfigured and scarred? Menial: How can I like Damien embrace a more simple and Christ-centered life?... Blessed Damien-help us to be heroic and holy!...Next Week: A Pilgrimage to Molokai-How the Saints Show Us Self-sacrifice to Serve Others

Bible Readings: Lv 13:1-2, 44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45

Quote: "Make it your business to desire the divine vision."

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi