In Search of Father Damien

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“I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say ‘we lepers,’ not, ‘my brethren.’ ” — Saint Damien of Molokai

The history of the Church during pandemic is full of saints who were miraculously defended from disease.

For instance, the Church invokes Saint Roch against epidemics. Saint Roch was given the power to cure the bubonic plague by laying his hands on its victims. In the course of his ministry, Roch himself contracted the plague and retreated into the forest, seeking a quiet death. But God commanded a nobleman’s dog to bring Roch food. When the pooch licked his wounds, Roch was suddenly healed of the plague, and he went back to healing the sick.

Saint Charles Borromeo served as Archbishop of Milan when the Black Death came to his city. Born to a powerful family of merchants, Charles spent his entire fortune and went deeply into debt feeding the poor. Amazingly, he never contracted the plague himself, crediting his good health to a strict regimen of fasting and prayer. He went on to organize the final session of the Council of Trent and became a key leader in the Counter-Reformation.

 

Damien De Veuster’s story isn’t like that. Father Damien was a Belgian missionary who  served in a Hawaiian leper colony; he worked there for sixteen years until he succumbed to the disease himself, just three months shy of his fiftieth birthday.

And that was that. There was no miracle cure, no supernatural immunity. His story has no happy ending—at least, not in the worldly sense. And yet his story is no less extraordinary.

The local bishop presented Father Damien to the 600 lepers of Kalawao on the island of Molokai in 1873. He introduced himself to them as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.” The assignment was supposed to be temporary, but Father Damien had no intention of ever leaving Kalawao. Before he even met them, this 33-year-old priest loved his new flock so intensely that he resolved to spend the rest of his days with them, however many or few those days may have been. And, clearly, he had no expectation of a long life or good health.

Live with them he did. Father Damien spent those sixteen years building homes, dressing wounds, digging graves, and teaching the Faith. Then, at last, he himself contracted the disease. Over the next four years he became more and more disfigured. As lesions spread across his body and his limbs began to fail him, he wrote in a letter: “I am calm and resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done.”

I often find myself wondering why miracles don’t seem as plenteous as they used to be. Of course, they’re out there: Padre Pio would give any medieval wonder-worker a run for his money. But why wasn’t Father Damien healed like Saint Roch? Was he somehow less deserving?

Imagine if some young priest in Milan prayed at Saint Charles’s tomb and was suddenly given the power to heal Covid victims by laying his hands on them. Wouldn’t that win hearts and minds for Christ? Are we somehow less deserving?

Miracles happen all the time, all over the world. Look at Melissa Villalobos. Her life, and the life of her unborn child, were saved by the miraculous intervention of Saint John Henry Newman in 2013. And what about the Bleeding Host of Betania, Venezuela? And the seventy confirmed miracle-healings that have occurred at the Sanctuary of Lourdes in France?

Miracles still happen. We just don’t care.

We should remember Christ’s admonishment to the official who asked Our Lord to heal his son. “Unless you see signs and wonders,” Jesus sighed, “you will not believe.” Likewise, He said to Thomas the Apostle, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” When God wants to enter our hearts, He doesn’t usually go for shock-and-awe.

Maybe it won’t be the conspicuous, supernatural, water-into-wine miracles that will win the West back to the Faith. Maybe it’s the everyday miracles of ordinary saints like Father Damien—men who love the unlovable and bear the unbearable. Day after day they brave illness and death, confident in the promise of everlasting life.

G.K. Chesterton once noted that “each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” These are the saints who will convert our generation—the hidden ones. We live in the Age of the Selfie, which values celebrity above all else. The great saints of our age will go about like guardian angels, unseen and unthanked, as they heal wounds, fill bellies, and dry tears.

They won’t have the most Twitter followers. Their YouTube videos won’t get 100,000 views in the first 24 hours. Their opinions won’t be quoted in The New York Times. But they’ll be fathers to their children, living and dying with them. They’ll be men of quiet duty, sweet and modest women—who seem nothing but a shadow cast by the kindly light they follow.

The coronavirus pandemic is the stage where these very modern saints, these silent heroes, will be born. I think especially of the priests (many of them older men themselves) who minister to the sick and dying, often at great risk to themselves.

Our own Father George W. Rutler spent his birthday (March 23) serving as an ad hoc chaplain to the makeshift hospital at the Javitz Center, just down the street from his parish in Hell’s Kitchen. “I have a pact with my Lord,” he explained to me in an email, “that I shall dutifully go into the world wherever he send me—with the understanding that it is accessible by the Lexington Avenue IRT subway.” And, so, he went.

Over fifty priests have already died from coronavirus, including Father Giuseppe Berardelli of Casnigo, Italy. The 72-year-old priest died of the coronavirus after giving his respirator to a younger man. It puts one in mind of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered for to be starved to death by his jailers in Auschwitz in the place of a Polish prisoner of war because the man had a wife and children.

It’s our duty to find these priests, not only to honor them (they’ll refuse the honor anyway), but to show the world what Christ’s holy priesthood is really about: they are shepherds tending their flocks and fathers nurturing their children.

We know that the mainstream media is deeply anti-Catholic. It will only report on the Catholic Church in order to damage her reputation. They’ll report on the sex-abuse scandal but ignore those tens of thousands of priests who live ordinary lives of humble service to God and His people. That’s the story that will really scandalize our culture. But it’s up to us—the Church Militant—to tell it.

So, I’d like to invite you to send us photos* of your priests (monks, nuns, or even bishop!) tending to coronavirus victims—whether they’re offering bedside consolation, delivering the Holy Sacrament, Anointing the Sick, livestreaming Mass, visiting the elderly,  collecting donations, or any other service they’re rendering to their flock.

To submit a photo, tag Crisis Magazine on Twitter (@CrisisMag), Facebook (@CrisisMagazine), or Instagram (@CrisisMag). Or, if you prefer, you can email it to me at editor@crisismagazine.com.

This isn’t a contest, but, having said that, Crisis Magazine is partnering with Sophia Institute Press on this photo drive to help encourage submissions. The best photographer and the priest he photographs will each receive free copies of five of Sophia’s new releases:

The winners will also receive a pack of fifty Saint Corona prayer cards.

Our pastors reflect the light of Christ in our lives. Help us to share them with the world.

A blessed feast of Saint Damien of Molokai to you all. Father Damien, ora pro nobis. And to all the priests and religious out there, fighting on the front lines of the Covid pandemic—thank you. Know that you’re never far from our thoughts, and always in our prayers.

 

* We ask that you please respect the privacy of everyone in the photograph—priests, patients, and bystanders. Ask permission before you take the photo and be sure to get everyone’s approval before posting it online. Remember that, as with anything privacy-related, “Uhhh… Hmm… Well, yeah, I guess so” means “No.

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to The American Conservative and author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).

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