Message: This year as we celebrate the death and burial of Jesus, we have the remarkable example of a man who conformed his life to the cross.
For Good Friday this year I want to tell you about a remarkable man - a man who conformed his life to the cross of Jesus. He died 125 years ago on April 15. Pope Benedict canonized him in 2011. His name is St. Damien of Molokai.
Last night I told you about Fr. Damien's devotion to Jesus in Blessed Sacrament: How he made a regular Holy Hour between 2 and 3 in the morning and how he organized the lepers of Molokai for Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration. This evening I will describe how his life illuminates the cross of Christ.
We have a picture of Damien as a 23-year-old seminarian just before he left Belgium for Hawaii. In his hand he holds a crucifix. After his ordination, Fr. Damien served on the Big Island. The population was sparse and territory enormous so walked long distances, baptizing native people, learning to eat their food and speak their language - and to use his carpentry skills to build churches. In 1873 the superior asked for volunteers to serve the lepers on Molokai. Fr. Damien stood first. When he arrived, 816 lepers lived at Kalaupapa.
Since the authorities figured they would die soon, they let them be - which meant that the strong robbed the weak and that men abused women and children. The dying were left exposed without shelter and the dead were thrown into a pit where animals fed on their bodies.
Fr. Damien began to change all that. He not only cared for people's spiritual needs, but built homes, dug graves and organized the people to care for each other.
Few odors are more repulsive than decaying human flesh. I've experienced it a few times, especially when I was in Peru. You want to run from the room. Fr. Damien gradually overcame that repulsion. He brought Communion to the lepers; he anointed them, placing his hands on them; he cradled the dying in his arms. He embraced them as if he were embracing Jesus.
Fr. Damien's biggest cross did not come from his care for the lepers; they became a source of joy. His biggest cross was loneliness. For most of his sixteen years on Molokai, he had no priest companion for confession and conversation. And when he became famous for his work, rather than take pride in him, some of his confreres became envious - and began to criticize him. How did Damien handle insults and rejection? There's only one way that works: He took them to the cross.
In a dramatic way Fr. Damien would share Jesus' cross. One day he noticed a lack of sensation in his foot. When other symptoms appeared, he said to his people, "My fellow lepers, I am one of you now." For his congregation and for the entire world he became an image of Jesus who took upon himself our condition, our infirmity, our corruption. Of course, Fr. Damien did not choose leprosy, but by choosing to work among the lepers, he accepted that possibility - if the Father willed it. In a similar way, when Jesus embraced his ministry, he accepted the possibility of Roman crucifixion.
Fr. Damien experienced an agony like Jesus and, like Jesus, he did have some comfort at his side. The Sacred Heart Fathers sent a priest to accompany him in his last months- Fr. Wendelin Moellers. Of Fr. Damien's final days, Fr. Wendelin has left us a record. He writes, "Fr. Damien prepared himself for death...he seemed to be happy. I heard his general confession and then made my own confession." The next day Fr. Damien received the Eucharist as Viaticum - food for the journey. He said to Fr. Wendelin, "Do you see my hands? All my wounds are closing and the crust is turning black. It's a sign of death, as you well know. Look at my eyes too; I have seen so many dying lepers that I cannot be mistaken."
Fr. Damien wanted to die on Palm Sunday, but he lived one day more - dying peacefully the morning of April 15. "That afternoon," writes Fr. Wendelin, "the sisters came to decorate his coffin; they nailed white silk on the inside and covered the exterior with black cloth on which they had sew a white cross."
Sixteen years earlier,* Fr Damien arrived in such destitution that he spent his first nights under a tree. On April 16, 1889, they buried him under that same Pandanus tree.
This year as we celebrate the death and burial of Jesus, we have the remarkable example of a man who conformed his life to the cross. St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us. Amen.
*On May 10, 1973. For that reason May 10 is his feast day.
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