Sixth Sunday A Message From Hawaii: Love Never Fails
When I was fourteen or fifteen I had to do a book report for my high school religion class on a biography by John Farrow, Mia Farrow's father, entitled Damien the Leper. That was my first exposure to the terrible leper colony of Kaluapapa on the Island of Molokai part of the Hawaiian Islands. It was also my first exposure to the heroism and sanctity of St. Damien de Veuster, the Belgian Catholic Missionary who lived among the lepers and contracted leprosy himself.
A number of years ago, I had a free ticket to Hawaii. I made it a point to see visit Kaluapapa. Originally, I had thought that I could just take a ferry over to the Island of Molokai and then a bus to Kaluapapa. I found out that the patients at Kaluapapa did not want anyone in their midst unless that person was with the town sheriff, Richard, who organized one tour a day. So I took a small plane, one of those where every passenger has two window seats, and flew to the Kaluapapa Airport where Richard met me and the four other people.
The approach to Kaluapapa was past the steep walls of Molokai descending into the ocean. These walls are steeper than the Big Sur of California or the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Then Kaluapapa appeared, a flat peninsula completely exposed to the weather, with steep mountains behind it which served as a prison for the lepers.
At that time there were about ninety patients still living in Kaluapapa, but with the advent of sulfides their disease is treatable. In fact, modern day leprosy, known as Hanson's disease, is now recognized as the least contagious of all contagious diseases. The patients are free to come and go. They no longer have to live on Molokai. Richard, the town sheriff and tour guide, himself had leprosy but has spent the last number of years traveling the world and speaking about Kaluapapa and about Fr. Damien.
Up to fifty years ago, leprosy was feared and treated with a form of superstition. Before sulfides, leprosy was a terrible looking disease with sores throughout the body and blockages in the circulatory system resulting in parts of the body deteriorating. The people afflicted with leprosy were treated as though they were criminals. In Hawaii, as in other places throughout the world, hospitals would not even take lepers. Instead the lepers were forced to live in colonies with laws separating them from society similar to those laws we heard in the first reading for today. In Hawaii the lepers were put into cages, shipped off to Molokai, and literally dumped into the ocean. Only those well enough to swim to shore would live. Richard said that most of the Polynesians, water people, were good swimmers, many of the Asians, Europeans and Americans never made it to the shore. Once on shore, the lepers faced total chaos. Everyone was sick. There was no medicine, no doctors, no shelters, no blankets, nothing but the weather beating on the exposed peninsula.
In the middle of the last century, the Catholic Bishop of the Hawaiian Islands, the Bishop of Honolulu, knew that there were seven to ten Catholics among the two or three hundred lepers in Kaluapapa. There was a religious brother, I believe his name was Br. Andrew, in Hawaii who was a skilled carpenter. The bishop asked the brother to build a small Church on Maui, take it apart and number each piece and then reassemble the Church at Kaluapapa. The brother showed up with two Polynesian workmen, but when the Polynesians saw the lepers they fled, probably hiding in the jungle. Soon after they arrived, the brother flagged down a passing boat and returned to Honolulu where he begged the bishop to never send him back to Kaluapapa.
Now, on the big island of Hawaii, there was a young priest named Damien de Veuster who had been a carpenter before he became a priest. Fr. Damien had built numerous small churches on the Big Island. The Bishop asked Fr. Damien to go to Kaluapapa and reassemble the little church that had been sent there. Fr. Damien was to have no contact with the lepers, for the bishop did not have many priests, and did not want to lose Fr. Damien. He told him that he was not to anoint or hear confessions of the lepers or to bury them or to have any contact with them at all.
When Fr. Damien first saw the lepers he was frightened beyond belief. But he was different. Fr. Damien was the first non leper to stay overnight on Kaluapapa. He didn't see the disease, he saw the people who were suffering. That first night he slept outside under a tree because he didn't think it was right that he should build a shelter for himself if these poor sick people were exposed to the weather. He immediately began building shelters for the people. He constructed the Church and began saying Mass. He was shocked to find over a hundred people wanting to pray with him, even though less then ten of them were Catholic. He was the first to show Christ's love to them.
A boat came to pick up Fr. Damien after his 30 day medical visa expired, but the story goes that the lepers fought off the crew preventing them from landing and taking Fr. Damien. Richard said that that was not true, the lepers were too weak to do anything. Actually, the bosun who was in charge of the landing party saw the lepers crying out that they didn't want Fr. Damien to leave. It was only after his death that the bosun's memoirs were revealed telling that one of those lepers was his sister. Fr. Damien wanted to stay, so the bosun made up the story and left him there. At that time Honolulu was in the midst of battling an outbreak of the plague, so Fr. Damien's presence on Kaluapapa slipped through the cracks of the medical people on the island. Time would later reveal that the secretary who was entrusted with the task of making out the medical visas to approach Kaluapapa kept making up new visas for Fr. Damien. Her mother was on that island. After six months, no one wanted Fr. Damien to return to the islands. The medical people were convinced that after being there that long, he probably already had contracted leprosy.
So Fr. Damien stayed. He built shelters, a water system, and turned Kaluapapa into a little functioning community. He planted over a thousand trees to protect the people from the elements. He built the Church and prayed for the people and with the people. Lepers of all faiths and no faith went to his Masses. They said, "He holds our hands when we die." Fr. Damien wrote out to organizations around the world to provide help for these people and received shipments of blankets and food and the everyday supplies that are far more valuable than gold. One leper wrote, "Today is the happiest day of my life. Today I have received my blanket. This is my blanket. I will be buried in it. Today I have hope and joy, for I have experienced God's love."
Although leprosy is not as contagious as feared, Fr. Damien contracted leprosy, probably because he did not pay much attention to caring for his own health. Towards the end of his life a Mother Marianne and a group of sisters joined him on the island and continued his work.
On a little hill of Kaluapapa there is a cross with a few words from scripture that sums up what was at the heart of Fr. Damien's work. The words are from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians......."Love never fails."
"A leper approached Jesus with a request, kneeling down as he addressed him. 'If you will to do so, you can cure me.' Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him and said: 'I do will it. Be cured.'"
In Statuary Hall of the Capital building in Washington D. C., the State of Hawaii erected a statue honoring Fr. Damien. What he and Mother Marianne did, their heroism, was extraordinary. They brought Jesus Christ to outcasts of society. They were Jesus Christ, reaching out and touching a leper, being concerned for the leper, not concerned with themselves.
Who are the outcasts of our society? Are the outcasts people with AIDS or other terrible illnesses? Are the outcasts the poor of the third world? Is the outcast of your family or my family that son or daughter, brother or sister, who has embarrassed a family by getting involved with illegal activities?
The example of St. Damien, the message of our gospel, is that we can reach out to those who are suffering and touch them with the healing power of Jesus Christ. Yes, by doing this we may open ourselves up to insult and attack from those around us and even from those we want to help. But the healing touch of Jesus Christ which we have been empowered to offer can conquer the pain around us.
Love never fails.
That should not be the case with the committed Christian, with we who are here now. We know who we are. Our value, our dignity, our meaning in life comes from Jesus Christ. It is all “Yes” for us. Jesus Christ is all yes. Our union with Jesus Christ is all that matters regardless of what is happening around us.
Jesus Christ is the reason for our optimism. Even when tragedy strikes, even when a loved one falls gravely ill and then passes on, we remain optimistic. The yes of Christ is so much greater than the pain of death. Even though we grieve we still know that with Jesus Christ, and through Jesus Christ, our loved ones live. We believe in the existence of the spiritual. We believe that those who die will live forever in the love of the Lord. Yes, we miss them terribly. Yes, we grieve deeply. But we also know that they are in peace. We believe that the souls of the faithful departed, our loved ones, continue to love us and themselves guide us through their own prayers to the Divine Lover. We believe that a time will come when we will be with them again.
It is all positive with the Lord. We follow our consciences. We choose that which is proper and moral, not that which is popular but immoral. Does that mean that there are a lot of “no’s” in our lives, like “No getting drunk, No sex outside of marriage, No hating others.” Yes, we limit our actions to avoid the negatives of life, but we do that so we can live in the positives of life. And by doing this, by living morally we simplify our lives. Did you ever notice the chaos that comes into our lives when we sin? When we sin, life gets complicated. As an example, consider lying. Who did we tell that lie to? What other lies do I now have to tell to cover the first lie up? Who knows what about it, about me? It is the same with all sin. When we sin, be it a lie or any sin, we complicate out lives. That is why the Bible equate sin with chaos. But when we just stick to what our conscience is telling us, when we stick to the Lord, life is simple, and we are happy. God brings order in chaos. He replaces complication with peace. No matter what the world throws at us, if we are true to our Christian core, we will be a peace with God, with ourselves and even with others. It is all yes with the Lord.
There is no doubt that many people misuse freedom. Perhaps when they go off to college or the service, or perhaps earlier, in high school or even in middle school, many get involved in the pagan lifestyle. The pagan lifestyle is the deification of the physical, the turning of money, stuff, and selfishness into gods. The pagan lifestyle assumes that happiness can be bought. The pagan lifestyle results in people being in turmoil. But Jesus Christ is far more powerful than the forces of the world. When through the Grace of God, we just put our trust in the Lord, we receive healing, and forgiveness, and peace. When we change our lifestyle to that of a Christian, we don’t feel that we have given up anything other than turmoil. There is no “no” with the Lord. It is all “yes”, all peace, His peace.
When we pray the Mass, we give our struggles over to the Lord. We let God transform our difficulties into occasions of prayer. We need to trust God. He is not alternatively yes and no. He is always yes.