The leper priest who lost his marbles

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Father Damien’s dying wish of marbles for his children may seem odd, but this saint’s caring for lepers can teach us a lot about selfless sacrifice.

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy. Photo: Sydney B Swift

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy.
Photo: Sydney B Swift

Thursday 4 June 2015

There’s a dedicated ‘day’ for everything now. Pick any date in the calendar and something momentous happened. Take 4 June, for example. On that day in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their miraculous hot-air flying machine. The Battle of Midway kicked off in 1942 and dozens of other battles and bloody victories share the same date. The actors Russell Brand and Angelina Jolie were both born on 4 June, in 1975.

Or how about remembering something just as obscure but a bit more existential? Ten years ago this day, the ambitious son of a grain farmer from Belgium was beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II for his sacrifice to the church and the Kalawao leper colony. There is more to this celebration than the neat passing of a decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of altruism in a ‘selfie-obsessed’ era, where the decision to join a colony of outcast lepers would be derided by today’s me-generation as madness, a one-way ticket to crazy town.

Born Jozef De Veuster in the rural town of Tremelo in 1840, the practical and head-strong youth spurned the family business in favour of a missionary’s life dedicated to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers). At an age when most youth today are still living off their parents, young Father Damien, as he became known, was building chapels and perhaps a little too zealously converting the natives of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to the Christian faith.

After a decade in the priesthood, his faith was put to the test as the islands struggled to contain a worsening outbreak of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Anyone showing signs of leprosy – skin discoloration, sores, wart-like lumps – was quickly isolated… cast out. A local newspaper report of one such “leper colony” in 1873 paints a grim picture: “It is a terrible place, where people lie rotting away, a place full of death and manslaughter, drunkenness, prostitution and rape. A place that could use a brave missionary.”

This gauntlet, as well as calls from church seniors for ‘volunteers’ to do shifts in the colony, were answered by Father Damien. He set out to alleviate the human suffering and indignity in Kalawao. He wanted the dead to be granted a Christian burial, not “eaten by wild pigs”, as described in the booklet Damien’s Way.* He wanted to provide better healthcare, contain the extortion, drinking and gambling, and stop the abuse of orphans in the colony.

But as the leprosy crisis spread, health officials in Honolulu tightened the quarantine, ordering all who entered the colony into effective exile. Father Damien had become one of the outcasts. He spent 16 years of his life taking care of the spiritual and physical needs of his leper family until he too ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1889.  The local press called him a “Christian hero… an apostle of the lepers.”

More than Christian zeal

In his dying days, when asked if there was anything he or his mission needed, the ‘leper priest’ simply replied: “Yes, marbles for my children.” These odd but moving words sum up the Picpus father’s selfless view.

Would we take that same one-way journey? Would we let our children volunteer to treat Ebola victims in West Africa? And what qualifies as a sacrifice – religious or non-religious in nature – nowadays? A week without a smartphone? A booze-free month after New Year’s over-indulging?

It is hard to reconcile his unflinching act of sacrifice with today’s norms. Sure, it was in the name of God, and the whole ‘converting the heathens’ European missionary ideal is less than savoury in a 21st-century setting. We might also be inclined to look cynically for ulterior motives in light of the Catholic priesthood’s more recent track record.

In fact, Damien’s early Christian fervour was put to the test by the Old Testament teachings that lepers were sinners and should be shunned. It’s been said that he preferred the pre-mission Hawaiian stance on the illness, which would never exclude the sick on such grounds.

So if you discount the original motives for being in Hawaii and look at Father Damien’s response when his humanity was directly challenged by the Old Book, on paper it looks like he made the ultimate selfless choice. “We lepers,” he is reported to have said, “stand together in solidarity, in simple acts or ordinary life with no superior detachment, reaching out to the sick and caring for them.”

Perhaps he hadn’t lost his marbles after all. Maybe he found them while the rest of us are still looking to win them on Mystic Marbles.

More info

Father Damien is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 11 October 2009. Several memorial days celebrate the Belgian priest’s contributions to the islands and humanity, including Father Damien Day on 15 April and a Feast Day on 10 May.

*Damien’s way is distributed in the Sint-Antoniuskapel on Pater Pater Damiaanplein in Leuven, which contains Damien’s crypt and tomb.

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