Friday, April 15, 2011

Damien and Marianne

God of compassion, we bless your Name for the ministries of Damien and Marianne, who ministered to the lepers abandoned on Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. Help us, following their examples, to be bold and loving in confronting the incurable plagues of our time, that your people may live in health and hope; through Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ Matthew 11:1-6

A Belgian missionary priest, Joseph Van Veuster (Damien of the Fathers of the Sacred Heart), born in 1840, came to Hawaii in 1863, and in 1873 was sent at his own request to Molokai to work among the lepers. He organized burial details and funeral services, so that death might have some dignity. He taught the people how to grow crops and feed themselves better. He organized a choir, and got persons to sing who had not sung in years. He gave them medical attention. Contracting leprosy himself in 1885 he stayed on and served among the people until his death in 1889.

In November 1883, Mother Marianne, then Provincial Mother, traveled from Syracuse to Honolulu with six other nuns to answer a call for aid to the Hansen's disease sufferers. In 1888, she moved to Kalaupapa to help the ailing Father Damien of Moloka'i. When the famed priest died, Mother Marianne Cope took over the care of the patients of Kalaupapa. She remained there until her death in 1918.

I stood overlooking the leper colony on Molokai - a beautiful stark place. Invited by Bishop Fitzpatrick, I went to many islands to visit with Native Hawaiian people to learn their needs for ministry and support. One kind man took me to the overlook to see the leper colony. I could almost hear the cries of the children sent away by families, the people who would never see their families again, and the music and life they lived despite the world's abandonment. I couldn't help but fill with tears at the real isolation and lack of compassion that these mothers, father, sons and daughters were treated with. Tears came that I could not hold back, even though the cruelest treatment is long over.

The worst thing you can be in biblical times and even 100 years ago was a leper. The only companionship you could expect were from people who had your disease. Human beings can be so unkind and the people who often need comfort and support the most are rejected because of fear. We fear it might be catching - whatever it is we fear. And yet the sign of Christ's presence is the healing of the worst of the worst, the outcasts of the outcasts, the ones who live beyond society's fear. And these two kind saints of God saw Christ in the faces of the lepers on this far away colony and made them their family, their priority, the loves of their lives.

Today, I ask God to increase our compassion for those who live beyond society's fear - those who are rejected because of fear. May we make our cause be the cause of those who have been sent away, those who have been rejected so that Christ might shine through our works and words this day.

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