Holy Homework: April 15 -- The Hawaiian Saint's Day

| 04/1/2024

By: Father Bob Pagliari, C.SS.R., PH.D.

On April 15, let’s attach to our fridge a photo of some towering ocean cliffs or golden shores

Father Robert Pagliari, C.Ss.R., Ph.D., author of "Holy Homework."
Father Robert Pagliari, C.Ss.R., Ph.D., author of "Holy Homework."

Authorities called it a prison without walls filled with prisoners without hope. It was neither of those and yet it was both of those.

On May 10, 1873, Jozef de Veuster, a determined missionary from Belgium who had taken the name Damien, traveled more than 19,000 miles across the earth, sea, and plateau to the Pacific islands.  Next, the newly-ordained priest faced a dangerously narrow, muddy, slippery trail with 26 switchbacks down the tallest cliffs in the world.  Pitch darkness had set in by the time he concluded the agonizing descent astride a sure-footed pack animal.  He had sent word ahead to announce his arrival but found himself alone at the end of his journey to this secluded valley on a silent night.  By the illumination from a full moon he was able to tether the mule to a Pandanus tree, unfurl a blanket, kneel to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and fall asleep.  He had no idea at the time that he was resting under the palm branches of the very tree where his body would be buried sixteen years later by the people who never greeted him that evening but have never forgotten him since.

Was this parcel of land, isolated on the tip of the Island of Molokai really a prison without walls?  There was no way to escape as the ocean currents were too treacherous to navigate and the rock-face mountains too steep to scale.  Since there were no concrete walls, barbed wires, or guard towers, this Kalaupapa peninsula was not technically a penitentiary.  However, the 600 people living there when Father Damien arrived were never allowed to leave.  Even if they could flee from their physical boundaries, they could never run away from the real jail that held them in captivity.  Their true, inescapable confinement was the disease that riddled their own bodies.

Leprosy was debilitating, disfiguring, deadly, and above all, contagious.  At that time there was no cure.  So, yes, these patients were hostages in a prison without walls and being eaten away by a disease without hope. But most troubling of all, perhaps, was the fact that no healthy person would touch them. 

The next morning, when the bright yellow sun spread its glistening orange rays over the horizon of the blue-green ocean, Damien opened his eyes to a vista that could only be described as the Promised Land.  This must have been what the Garden of Eden looked like before Adam and Eve disobeyed and tasted the evil of sin.  Nevertheless, the satanic viper was alive and well in this Utopia.  No forbidden fruit was needed to destroy human integrity here.  Despair was the real temptation.  If the devil could convince these captives to abandon any faith in God and accept hopelessness as the only idol they should worship, then Satan would surely be reigning in hell rather than serving in heaven, and paradise would once again be lost.

From 1866 through 1969, about 8,000 adults and children were forcibly taken from their homes by soldiers and sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula for medical quarantine. 

During his 16 years of voluntary incarceration and in addition to serving as a full-time pastor to his despairing flock, Damien also built two orphanages, constructed a reservoir and livable huts with functional furniture designed for accessible use and, gently but daringly, bandaged their ulcers with his own hands.  However, as the residents lost their eyesight, limbs, and strength, a great deal of his energy was needed to make coffins and dig graves.  Six months after he arrived at the colony, he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I have made myself a leper with the lepers to gain all for Jesus Christ.”

Holy Homework:

On April 15, the memorial day celebrated in Hawaii to honor the death of this humble priest, let’s attach to our fridge a photo of some towering ocean cliffs or golden shores. Then each time we open the door to retrieve some healthy nourishment, let’s offer a prayer of praise for the nourishing compassion that was done by Saint Damien of Molokai who, like Christ, dared to touch lepers with dignity, caring, and love.


Comments may be sent to FatherBobPagliari@Yahoo.com

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