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DAMIEN DE VEUSTER/ "We Are Filled With Joy": For Hawaii's Saint, Rome Gets Aloha

October Sat 10, 2009

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Sunday brings the canonization of five new saints, most prominently Jeanne Jugan (foundress of the church's unparalleled caretakers, the Little Sisters of the Poor) and, of course, Damien de Veuster, the Belgian-born missionary to Hawaii's Kalaupapa leper colony, where he died of the disease in 1889, nine months short of his 50th birthday.

 

Likewise celebrating its golden anniversary in the Union, the elevation of the figure known on the islands as "Father Damien" -- a folk hero for Hawaiians of all sorts -- has sparked a surge of civic pride in Aloha Country. And at the center of it all, a home-state delegation of 530 yellow-hat-clad pilgrims (led by 11 patients from Kalaupapa) has reached Rome, where they gave thanks earlier today with a morning Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter's celebrated by Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu:

 

Damien "cast out the demons of despair" in the Hansen's disease settlement in Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, [Silva said] and helped to create pride in a community that had been created as a prison where the sick were sent to die.

 

Silva told those gathered that "we are filled with joy" as the group prepares for Father Damien's elevation to sainthood Sunday. The Mass was held at the altar of the chair of St. Peter in the basilica, where the greatest works by the Italian masters — Bernini, Michelangelo and Raphael among them — are on full view in epic proportions.

 

"We are so grateful to be here, under the chair of Peter ... so that we can all recognize that we are brothers and sisters of one another," Silva said, adding that the lessons of Father Damien are powerful and pertinent some 120 years after his death. "The joy that we celebrate is meant to strengthen" to help others, Silva said.

 

The Mass left many awestruck and moved, some to tears.... "It's like a dream," said Honolulu resident Alfredo Tagab, 77, who wore a Father Damien aloha shirt to the Mass. Sister Regina Jenkins, vicar provincial for the Sacred Hearts sisters in Hawai'i, called the Mass a fitting tribute to Father Damien. "Because my brother Damien is who we are here for ... our hearts just swell with gratitude," she said....

 

During the hour-long Mass, which started about 8 a.m. in Rome, a Hawai'i choir on the pilgrimage sang "Iesu no ke Kahuhipa" or "Jesus Like a Shepherd Leads Me." The choir members suspected it was the first time the piece had been sung in the basilica.

 

Before reaching in the Urb, the pilgrims visited Damien's Belgian birthplace and tomb (above), where the patients shared a pew with the country's king and queen and a statue of the saint-to-be was unveiled. Following the canonization, a relic of the American West's first saint -- adopted in recent years as an unofficial patron of HIV/AIDS patients -- will travel the mainland before making its way home, where it'll be permanently kept at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, the site of Damien's ordination in 1866.

 

And, lastly, for all the chaos, controversy and chatter of these days, this moment provides a useful reminder for us all that the saints aren't the talkers, but the doers.... Maybe now more than ever, doers are what the world and the church need most. And luckily for both, saints -- doers -- are what we're all called to be. Whether in Hawaii, Belgium or Rome, to everyone in Damien Nation, Ho'omaika'i -- enjoy the weekend.

 

First published in

 

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