NOTE: This post has moved from its original position because of an unexpected glitch.
Sunday, Father Damien, born Jozef De Veuster, will be canonized in an elaborate ceremony at the Vatican. Already, this week, a Hawaiian delgation has been here in Belgium, especially in his home village of Tremelo, for celebrations (they presented the King and Queen with beautiful leis, a lei maile for the king and a beautiful mixed lei for the queen, but I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, a pale green leaf alternating with a deep purple red flower).
This weekend, joined by a Belgian delegation, they will be going to the Vatican. If anyone deserves to be a saint, Damien is the first on the list. It has taken 120 years, which is ridiculous, but, it is fitting, that in this new era of economic meltdown caused by an unbridled selfishness, someone who so epitomizes self-sacrifice, should be prominently in the news. The last “martyr to charity” as is written on his grave, he was also one of the first “humanitarians” in the modern sense.
He decided to go to Moloka’i to help the lepers, people who had been abandoned and exiled, and to share their fate. He brought life back to a community which had been a way station to death and nothing more. He was the carpenter, undertaker, architect, organizer and inventor. His selflessness, highlighted by the fact that he too, succumbed to the disease, made him a celebrated figure in the XIXth century world. That celebrity ignited an intense jealousy among his superiors in his order and among his protestant competition in Hawai’i. It was said that he contracted leprosy by having sexual relations with infected women, and furthermore, his superiors accused him of also having syphilis. Despite a disculpatory medical examination, the attacks and accusations were not stilled and he was forbidden contact with his fellow missionaries.
However, he died happy, “Tell our superior that I am the happiest of priests” because he had helped. After he died, the protestant pastor of Honolulu, the Reverend Hyde, learned that a committee was being organized in London to memorialize Damien. He took it upon himself to send a viritolic letter to London repeating all the slurs and adding to them. The letter made the rounds, but Robert Louis Stevenson, who had spent time in Hawai’i, and had met Damien on Moloka’i, outraged by the character assassination, wrote a defense of Damien that put things right.
The Vatican has decided that Damien will not only be the patron saint of lepers but also of people with AIDS. This has generated controversy. Some people think that acssociating AIDS with leprosy will revive the faulty idea that AIDS is easily transmittable and will lead to new calls for segregation. Others object to the reinforcement of the image of victimhood.
Damien’s message, however, is one of human solidarity above all.