The Spirit of Father Damien
Publication Date: October 30, 2010
The Leper Priest-A Saint for Our Times
Father Damien, famous for his missionary work with exiled lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, is finally Saint Damien. His sanctity took 120 years to become officially recognized, but between his death in 1889 and his canonization in 2009-amid creeping secularization and suspicion of the missionary spirit he so much embodied-Fr. Damien De Veuster never faded from the world's memory. What kept him there? What keeps him there now?
To find an answer, Belgian historian and journalist Jan De Volder sifted through Father Damien's personal correspondence as well as the Vatican archives. With careful and even-handed expertise, De Volder follows Father Damien's transformation from the stout, somewhat haughty missionary of his youth, bounding from Europe to Hawaii and straight into seemingly tireless priestly work, to the humble and loving shepherd of souls who eventually succumbed to the same disease that ravaged his flock.
De Volder finds that-as spiritual father, caretaker, teacher, and advocate-Father Damien accomplished many heroic feats for these poor outcasts. Yet the greatest gift he gave them was their transformation from a disordered, lawless throng exiled in desperate anarchy into a living community built on Jesus Christ, a community in which they learned to care for one another.
Every generation seems to have its own image of this world-famous priest. Already during his life on Molokai and at his death in 1889, many considered him a holy man. Even today, in the highly secularized Western world, he is widely admired. In 2005 his native Belgium honored him with the title "the greatest Belgian" in polling conducted by their public broadcasting service. Statues honor his memory in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and at the entrance to the Hawaiian State Capitol in Honolulu. In 1995, in the presence of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II beatified him in Brussels, Belgium; and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Today Father Damien is the unofficial patron of outcasts and those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.
De Volder contends that the common thread running through the saint's life, the spirit of Father Damien that so speaks to the world, is at once uniquely Christian, fully human, and as important today as ever before.
I had gone to an all-boys high school named after Father Damien, so I already had a special devotion to him. With that being said, I remember reading a biography on him in highschool and not really being touched. By contract, this book really delved into the man. It is NOT a hagiography by any means. I really dislike the glorification of saints because that makes it unrelatable and distracting.
The elements I really love is how it shows the nuances of Father Damien's character. What type of man would be so possessed as to give up his life like this? Well, for starters a man who understands the fragility and temporary nature of life.
The book also shows the maturation of the saint. In his 20s, he reminds me of so many young Catholic men: idealistic, spiritually proud, ambitious, ready to make a difference. And then you see him change in certain ways but in other ways remain the same.
It also delves into his incredibly challenges. No matter where you are, even if you are tucked away in a leper colony on an island, there are still great mortifications and sufferings (beyond the physical/health threat of leprosy). His superiors were a huge cause of suffering, and did not help at all.
All in all, this book really hits the mark. It gets me to look at my life, and look at Fr. Damien's life, and realize how much better I can do with myself. It's an inspiring book to be sure.