The Pope honors a saint for his work helping victims of leprosy

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Father Damien de Veuster was awarded the highest honor a Catholic priest can attain last Sunday, when Pope Benedict XVI declared him Saint Damien, the patron saint of Hansen’s disease, and a voice for “rejected people of all kinds: the incurably ill (victims of AIDS or other diseases), abandoned children, disoriented youths, exploited women, neglected elderly people and oppressed minorities,” as translated from Latin from the Catholic News Service.

Father Damien came from humble beginnings, and rose unexpectedly to priesthood by age 25. He was born Joseph (Jozef) de Veuster on January 3, 1840, in Tremeloo, Belgium, the Dutch-dialect region. His family owned a farm and trade business, where his strength was valued and education was not. His seven other siblings continued their education, three of which went into religious service. Jealous of their intellect, Joseph went back to school in nearby Braine-de-Comte. He soon felt a calling to God, and after visiting his brother Pamphile, found he was well suited to monastic and spiritual life. At age 19, Joseph entered the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

His life’s goal was now missionary work. He studied philosophy, theology, French, Latin and Greek in hopes of becoming a priest, for only priests went on missions. He took the name Damien, and studied arduously to prove to his skeptical superiors he should be a candidate for priesthood.

In 1863, Damien took his ill brother’s place on the latest mission to the Hawaiian islands. The following year, the ship landed, Damien was soon ordained a priest, and assigned to Hawaii Island.

After spending nine successful years on his mission in Hawaii, Father Damien realized the need for a resident priest on Kalaupapa and asked to serve. This was the northern peninsula of Molokai Island, designated a leper (now Hansen’s disease) settlement by the Hawaiian government; an extreme, isolated setting, While many priests shied away from such a death sentence, Father Damien actually wanted to help the residents of Kalaupapa. His superior, Bishop Maigret wrote: "You may stay as long as your devotion dictates...." Father Damien’s devotion was strong. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "he shut to, with his own hands, the doors of his own sepulcher."

Beginning in 1974, by building homes, orphanages, hospitals, and churches for Kalaupapa’s residents, Father Damien gave them a community. He played with the children who had no feet and bandaged the open wounds of his parishioners, without thought of his own health. He advocated for better healthcare and supplies, even when his superiors hesitated in their support.

“This is my worldly task. I shall get leprosy one day, and when I do, I shall carry on working for my children as long as I can,” wrote Father Damien in 1876. Father Damien indeed succumbed to leprosy 16 years after landing on Molokai, in 1889. Throughout his tenure, Father Damien built over 350 buildings on the island, and restored basic order and humanity to a lawless community.

He was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1977, and was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II. The celebratory Mass on October 11, 2009, lead by Pope Benedict XVI, also honored four others: Sister Jeanne Jugan of France, Rafael Arnaiz Baron of Spain, Francesc Coll y Guitart also of Spain, and Zygmunt Szczesny Felinski of Poland.

During his homely, the pope said of the new saints, "Their perfection, in the logic of the faith that is sometimes humanly incomprehensible, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but in choosing to go against the current by living according to the Gospel.” (Catholic News Service)

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