Salute To A Hero
Hero! We all have heroes. Well at least some of us do. So it is no surprise that in his most recent reflection one of our Sacred Hearts men in California, Fr. John Roche, told how from his youthful days onward he had a devotion to St. Damien and marveled at his life and ministry. Later in life John himself joined the very same Congregation of the Sacred Hearts and some time after ordination went to minister to the victims of Hansen’s Disease in our mission in India. He had been so inspired by Damien that he wished to follow his example. In order to better minister to the patients there he soon found a teacher to help him with the local language. This lady had been a teacher and now was a leprosy patient herself. During one teaching session she offered him some of the food she was eating. He was absolutely taken by surprise at her offer and somehow he made up an excuse not to accept her offer.
That night was a terrible night for John. He tossed and turned while thinking about what he had done that day and how he must have affected the generous spirit of his teacher. He also thought about Damien, and how Damien would have responded to a similar offer and how in fact he had responded to so many patients during his sixteen years in Kalawao and Kalaupapa. Fr John there and then determined that this would not happen again because he was not in India as a tourist but rather as a healer who would follow the example of Damien in imitation of Jesus Christ Himself. Damien was his hero.
Today here in Kalaupapa we do a lot of kissing and hugging of our beloved patients. Indeed not too long after I arrived here in 2012, Boogie dubbed me the “kissing priest.” Let me tell you I’ve been called a lot worse. Lol. Meli has told me that I didn’t have to kiss her so much. Perhaps I need to use a different mouthwash! Of course it was very different here when Damien arrived on this peninsula on May 10, 1873. He knew that this was not the time or place to be aloof, to separate himself from his people. From the moment of his arrival he knew that he must be one with his people if he was to gain their trust and have them put their faith in him as their friend and pastor. That is probably why, from the moment he arrived, he slept under the pandanus tree rather than in the shelter of the little church nearby which had preceded him by one year. From the start Damien was in solidarity with his people.
Damien built their houses and enlarged their church. He bandaged their sores and after they had passed to the next life, he laid their bodies to rest in the nearby cemetery. He played with the children, put his strong arms around them in protection and wiped the tears from their cheeks. He shared his food with them and shared their food. He wielded a big stick to correct the wrongdoers and was gentle with the weak and the suffering. Then he joined them in their suffering.
It is now 146 years since Damien set foot on this rocky and barren peninsula. The prevailing winds still blow from the north east and the Pali still towers above us, but the years since then have brought lush growth to this peninsula replacing its utter barren face of former times. It is like that new life which Damien brought to this land and forever changed it. We salute you, St. Damien. Aloha.
Fr. Pat Killilea ss.cc.
St. Francis Church, Kalaupapa, Hawaii.