When I was a child I remember one of the earliest “religious” movies that I saw was called “Father Damien, Leper Priest” with Ken Howard (from “The White Shadow” TV show) playing the lead role. I remember being moved very much by this priest who volunteered to go to a leper colony to serve the people there even though he knew he was putting his own life in danger.
What I really remember though was not this huge act of self-sacrifice, but rather how Fr Damien really embraced all aspects of the people’s life there. I remember him learning their language so that he could pray with them in their own language. His early attempts would be ones in which he would make the people laugh with his mistakes which often made his sentences sound silly or even lewd. But he just rolled with it, trying his best, which is really an example for all of us in our daily lives. It was this simplicity that stuck with me and has led me to try to understand people of other cultures and has always made welcoming a large part of my ministry to all people.
In a moving scene in the newest movie, Fr Damien outstretches his arm to shake a young boy’s hand, despite knowing that the young man has Hanson’s Disease, better known as leprosy. While we hear about lepers in the gospel, that word was really applied to any kid of skin ailment that rendered someone “unclean” or more probably “contagious.” In fact, people were required by law to remove themselves from society or to shout in the streets should they remain “unclean, unclean” so that people wouldn’t touch them. Hanson’s disease is what we normally associate lepers with in today’s modern parlance. But the same holds true. These were contagious people that nobody would touch out of fear and furthermore, that modern society had eliminated from society and placed them on an island of their own and would conveniently forget about them. There wasn’t anything that doctors could do for them and those with the disease would often feel bad about themselves and about how they longed for human contact. They were pariahs, people that nobody wanted anything to do with.
Damien, saw that need for human embracing and he did so with love, the love that God had for these people that they needed to understand. Damien awakened an entire culture to believe that God had not run afoul of them. That God had not forgotten them, exiling them to a lost continent to waste away. God was truly here with them, suffering with them and leading them to a deeper and more intimate experience of the cross than one might expect on the surface.
Damien is going to be raised to Sainthood today. And his life beckons us to consider some of the same deep questions he faced:
Who do I place on a island and conveniently forget about?
What role do I play in reconciling those who long for human contact with God and the world?
Who are our lepers? The people nobody wants anything to do with?
We have murderers and prisoners and child molesters who we all “put away and out of our sight” and conveniently remind ourselves of their guilt but never of their humanity. We have the unborn who we often think of as an inconvenience, especially for young teens who get pregnant. instead of providing care we settle for death for the child in the womb and we tell the teen that they simply can handle the pressures of parenthood and adolescence while not really offering any real assistance whatsoever. Many of us place our elderly in their own exiles, forgetting about them in nursing homes and never taking any time for a visit much less a daily one.
We don’t have to go to Molokai to find our own lepers.
And by the same token, we don’t have to go to Molokai to see Fr Damien either. We need to look into our own hearts and into the heart of Damien’s example as well. It is there that we find God tugging at our heart and begging us not to forget all those who can be easily forgotten.
So let us pray to St Damien today that he might show us the way to our own human heart’s deeper longings for others. To which “forgotten land” might you have need to visit or re-visit?
Who have you forgotten? It is only your embrace that they long for today.