To the Brothers and Sisters of the Congregation
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
The Congregation is preparing for an exceptional event: the first canonization of one of its sons, Father Damien De Veuster, which will take place October 11 in Rome. All over there are initiatives being taken to make Damien better known and to prepare to celebrate the Church’s recognition of him as a saint. It is right that we rejoice, with a joy rooted in Easter, in the victory of the Risen one over evil, suffering and death. Damien united himself to his Lord in his gift of self. Like Jesus, he loved to the end and now shines with the light of the just in the banquet of God’s reign.
We already know all about Damien. As Marcellin Bousquet, Superior General at the time, wrote announcing the death of Damien, “the fame of this valiant missionary has become so universal that it seems almost useless to speak to you of his life.” And so we are not writing to remind you of what you already know, even though at this time it would be good for all of us to read again his biography, his letters or other writings about him. Damien’s life has to be a constant source of mediation and inspiration for us.
We are also aware that Damien is not only “ours.” Damien is a universal brother, a model of humanity, apostle of those with leprosy, a hero of charity, an inspiration for anyone wanting to serve the excluded and forgotten, a source of pride for Belgians and Hawaiians, a glory for the whole Church. The power of Damien and his influence in peoples’ lives extend far beyond the limits of our Congregation.
Damien was a worthy son of the Sacred Hearts. His religious profession in the Congregation marked his life up to the moment of his death. This letter that we are sending as Superiors General is born of the deep joy that comes from being his brothers and sisters in the same religious family. What unites us to Damien is something very special. This word of ours is meant to be a simple and enthusiastic invitation to prepare ourselves as a Congregation for this exceptional event of the canonization of one who was and always is our brother: Damien of Molokai, priest, missionary and SS.CC. religious.
There is nothing exceptional in recognizing the greatness of Damien. Since his death 120 years ago, and even during his life, a multitude of men and women have seen in him a masterpiece of love, service and faith. His life has inspired numberless commitments to suffering humanity and vocations to the consecrated life. We are not discovering Damien just now, though we can always appreciate more who he really is. What is new is the canonization, through which “the Church gives thanks to God for the gift of her children who have known how to respond generously to divine grace, honors them and invokes them as intercessors. At the same time, she presents these shining examples for the imitation of all the faithful.” (Benedict XVI to the Postulators of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, December 17, 2007)
1. The Church gives thanks to God.
First we look toward God. “Holiness” is an expression of the marvels that the Lord is accomplishing among his people. The saints are eminent signs of the action of the Spirit of the Risen One in human reality, the prolongation of the mystery of the incarnation that seals the covenant between the divine and the human. The glory of God is manifested in the depth and the dignity of humanity that God has created. Human life comes to fullness in friendship with the Lord.
Damien reveals this mystery with a particular radiance. As in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, in Damien we discover the face of God where people seem to have lost even a human face. The dedication of Damien to those with leprosy and his becoming a leper himself proclaim loudly the infinite dignity of each person and the love of God for his children. For that reason we praise God in his saints, who are reflections of his glory. We praise God in Saint Damien who is his son, the work of his hands, his gift to the Church and the world.
The canonization is not the exaltation of a hero or the giving of an honorary title to a group or an institution, or the mere illustration of a series of values or an ideology. The canonization is first an act of praise to the God of love and mercy, who, even though hidden in the misery of human history, pours forth his compassion upon us by transforming the existence of the saints through the power of his Spirit.
Damien is not “ours”. He belongs to God. He can only really be understood as belonging to the Lord of life who shaped him and made him his own.
Holiness is the work of the Lord. His love is what justifies us. From this perspective, the canonization becomes a confession of hope-filled faith. The love of God is at work among us, as it was active in the life of Damien. The love of God can continue to transform us in spite of our weakness and our shadow side.
According to Brother Joseph Dutton, his faithful companion during his later years, Damien may have had many character defects, but these faults were consumed like straw in the fire of his charity. That fire is the very fire of God, a love strong as death, a fire that even torrential rains cannot extinguish. It is the same fire we see in images of the Heart of Jesus: a pierced and suffering heart at the same time overflowing with passion and life. That was also Damien’s heart.
With the canonization, it is not only the Congregation or those who have known Damien and been inspired by him who give thanks to God. It is the whole Church, as the body of Christ that turns to the Father and praises him for Damien. Canonization means that the one who is “blessed” until now is worthy of the veneration of the whole Church. Damien now takes his place in the heart of the Church-Bride in prayer before her Lord.
As a Congregation we experience the joy of being in communion with the universal Church and, on the occasion of the canonization of our brother, we renew our commitment to work for unity and fraternity as Christ prayed to the Father.
2. Honoring Damien
By canonization the Church honors Damien. She publicly and officially recognizes the outstanding value of his life and his work.
During his life and also after his death, Damien was praised and slandered, admired and condemned. In his letters he leaves us a witness of the moral suffering caused by loneliness and misunderstanding, to such a point that he begins to think that he is unworthy of heaven. We could say that canonization now dissipates these doubts and proclaims the deep truth of his existence: this is a man of God, the choices he made and the things he did pleased God and show him forth.
“Our behavior is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history. We can open ourselves and the world and allow God to enter: we can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good. This is what the saints did, those who, as “God's fellow workers”, contributed to the world's salvation" (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi nº 35)
Damien is one of “God’s fellow workers” who contributes to the redemption of the world. When we honor Damien, we recognize him as a model to imitate and so we make a judgment about what is good and what is not good. All actions are not the same. It is not the same to ignore the suffering of the world as to serve outcasts. It is not the same to focus on my own wellbeing as to sacrifice myself for the happiness of others. It is not the same to ignore the poor and live comfortably as to love those who suffer and live on the margin. It is not the same to remain distant from the unfortunate for fear of contamination as to touch and embrace a leprosy patient. It is not the same to have no interest in God as to seek him with humility and perseverance. It is not the same to preserve one’s life as to give it away through love.
To honor Damien is to admit clearly and categorically that his path is the right one, that what he did is what must be done, and that his genuine and tenacious compassion is what God desires. That is why Damien is great and honoring him is good for the Church and for humanity.
This way of honoring Damien will always be a source of inspiration for the Congregation. In the light of Damien’s life, we should try to give substance to the “big words” that we use in speaking of our life and mission: the proclamation of God’s love, reparation, Eucharistic adoration, the Consecration to the Sacred Hearts, the service of the poor… These were not just words for Damien, nor little activities pompously labeled to project a laudable image of himself. The charism of the Congregation was able to shape his entire life because he was able to concretize it in selfless service to his dear leprosy patients on Molokai.
At the end of his life, Damien felt “honored” by two crosses: the decoration given him by Queen Liliuokalani (a public recognition of his devotion and his work) and leprosy (that united him in a special way to the cross of his Lord). From the moment of his ritual encounter with death in religious profession (prostration under the funeral pall), Damien was ready to give his life to the very end. When leprosy brought him one step closer to death, he would say that he was “the happiest missionary in the world.” Could it be then, that complete happiness really does come from God?
“His death was really one worthy of a son of the Sacred Hearts; it was the death of a saint.” (Marcellin Bousquet sscc, Superior General, June 3, 1889)
3. Invoking Damien
From the time of his death down to today, many people have confided their prayers and intentions to Damien and have experienced his protection. With the canonization, the whole Church invokes Damien as an intercessor. Through our faith in the risen Christ, victor over death, we trust that those who have suffered and died in the Lord, live and reign with him.
Evidently, we too, brothers and sisters of the Congregation, can invoke Damien and turn to him as our elder brother. In our case, prayer takes the form of fraternal dialogue between members of the same religious family.
Damien is one of those valiant missionaries that left for far off islands to proclaim the Gospel offering the complete gift of their lives. Those missionaries lived frugally, often shared the poor conditions of their Christians, faced all kinds of dangers and were ready to die for their mission. For example, we think of the three brothers who offered to go to Molokai with Damien and so many others like them. And so it is in the Congregation. There are not many who shine like Damien, but the dedication of all and the humble and hidden work of the majority are needed so that we continue to be that good earth where God can make grow the fruit that he desires.
In the Congregation there were and have always been brothers and sisters that are not like Damien. Without looking any further, we think of Pamphile, Damien’s brother (blood brother and religious brother), who dedicated his whole life to study and to the regular life of the community, incapable of an apostolic life as hard and exposed as his brother’s. With a mixture of humor and reproach, every once in a while Damien would remind him of the dramatic contrast between the two, “What good is it to envy the doctor’s biretta if it would be at the cost of the salvation of the poor souls of the Kanakas?”…Forgive me if my hands are not as white as yours that you only use, I imagine, to turn the pages of books.”
When it comes down to it, the majority of us are more like Pamphile than Damien. Clearly each one of us, with our own way of being a religious, can find our place in the Congregation. We do not all have to be the same. Diversity is necessary and healthy. Whatever our situation, when we invoke Damien, we enter into dialogue with him and we let him challenge us, as if we were other “Pamphiles” receiving the humorous and demanding comments of the missionary who speaks with the liberty of someone who seeks nothing for himself.
What does Damien say to us today? How does he challenge us, his brothers and sisters of the Congregation? What would he think of the consistency of our faith, of the generosity of our dedication, of our love for the poor, of the solidity of our commitment? As the Reverend Hugh Chapman, an Anglican minister who was such a support to him said, a life like Damien’s “silently accuses us of being comfortable and selfish.”
Without a doubt, Damien is a source of pride for the Congregation but he must be much more. Above all his life should be a salutary lesson that shakes us out of our half-heartedness and reawakens enthusiasm for this vocation to which we have been called, a vocation that is rooted in the same things that nourished Damien’s vocation. May Damien help us be better.
The SS.CC. family celebrating
One of the last letters that Damien received, less than a month before his death, was from Honolulu on the occasion of his feast day (Joseph) and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his arrival in Hawaii (March 19, 1864). It was sent by Sister Judith sscc, who had made the crossing from Europe shortly before Damien in the first group of sisters to arrive in Hawaii 150 years ago this year. She sent greetings from Sister Marie Laurence and the other sisters who had made the voyage with him in 1864. Even though, according to the custom at the time, Damien did not keep much contact with the SS.CC. sisters (who helped him on various occasions sending supplies for the mission) this final word of friendship from a sister, companion on the long voyage to the islands, reminds us in a profound way of the bonds of affection which always must exist between the two branches of the Congregation.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us rejoice at the upcoming canonization of Damien. This invitation extends especially to the members of the Secular Branch and to everyone who lives their faith inspired by the SS.CC. charism, the source and nourishment of Damien’s commitment. Let us give thanks to God and let us share our joy with those among whom we live. It is the joy of the whole Church. It is the joy of the human family, thirsting for goodness, compassion and justice. Like Jesus, Damien went through life doing good. Let us ask him that that might also be our path to holiness.
To the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, honor and glory.