Homily for October 11, 2009

Father Tom’s Homily
28th Sunday
October 11, 2009

This Sunday morning, October 11th, Damian De Veuster was canonized a saint in an elaborate ceremony in St. Peter’s Square by the pope. 110 years after his death, he is now to be known as St. Damien of Molokai,.
In 1864. as the Civil War was raging in the U.S., young 24-year-old Damien arrived from Belgium to serve as a missionary priest in Hawaii. Nine years later, he volunteered to serve the lepers on the island of Molokai.

In the mid-1800’s there were a number of diseases decimating the Hawaiian people. While smallpox and influenza killed far more people than leprosy, the people of the islands feared leprosy more than any other disease.
In 1868 the authorities established a leper settlement on an 800-acre tract on the remote and inaccessible island of Molokai. Persons found to be suffering from this disease were snatched by force from their families and sent to this island to suffer and die in isolation from society.
Conditions on the island were terrible. Patients were literally dumped on the shore and had to somehow survive in caves or squalid shacks.

In 1873, five years after the leper was established, Father Damien volunteered to move to the island to serve the lepers. There he set to work to improve living conditions for the people, building houses, a church, a school and a cemetery. As a result of his labors in organizing and instilling in them a sense of pride, Molokai was transformed into a proud and joyful community.

In the beginning, he exercised the normal precautions that were recommended for those working with lepers. He did not touch them, did not enter their homes or eat with them.
But he soon realized that if he were to truly be their co-worker in the many construction projects, he had to develop a normal manner with them. If he was to be their pastor, besides touching their souls, he must touch their bodies. So Father Damien bathed their wounds and held their hands as they lay dying.
He accepted the disease in his heart before he had to accept it in his body. In a letter he wrote to his brother, Damien said, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Finally, twelve years after he arrived in Molokai, the day came when preaching to them, he said, “We lepers.” He had contracted the dreaded disease. Four years later he died at age 49 in 1889. He was buried with his beloved lepers in the small cemetery he had constructed besides the small church. By this time his fame had spread throughout the world.

Forty-seven years later, in 1936, Leopold II, the king of Belgium asked that Damien’s body be taken back to his native Belgium. Since the U.S. controlled Hawaii, the king asked President Roosevelt to help with the move. Roosevelt ordered a troop ship to transport the body. This was carried out in a manner appropriate for a deceased ambassador.
The ship’s first stop was San Francisco where the ship’s laundry was to be cleaned at the federal prison called Alcatraz. The laundry was delayed for five days because there was riot going on at the prison.
So at Roosevelt’s direction, this famous leper’s casket was taken ashore in San Francisco and lay in state in the cathedral under a full military honor guard for five days while thousands came to pay their respects. Masses and eulogies were given by the local archbishop and other high officials.
Again at Roosevelt’s direction, the ship’s passage was expedited through the Panama Canal, advancing to the head of a long line of waiting ships. Finally back in Belgium, Father Damien, the internationally admired pastor of the condemned lepers of Molokai, was buried with honors on May 6, 1936.

Back in Hawaii, there was a sense of grief that their hero priest had been taken from them. In 1995 Pope John Paul presented the bones of Damien’s right hand to a special delegation of Hawaiians. Thus the leper priest was returned in part to his orginal burial place alongside his beloved lepers at Molokai.
Now St. Damien’ memory will be enshrined in the hearts of the Catholic community as his name is mentioned the Eucharistic Prayer throughout the world on this day.

St. Damien’s story is a parable about God, who in Jesus has come to minister to us by identifying with us with the deepest compassion (“suffering with” us in all our struggles).
Just as Damien could finally say, “We lepers,” (i.e: “I am one of them”), Jesus took on our fallen condition, ending up spiked naked to a cross on which he was held up to public shame and ridicule. He became the Crucified One, the Ultimate Leper, among all the broken and despised souls of history.
An impoverished criminal, Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb. But he was raised up from death by the Father to proclaim a new message of hope. It is a message that all those who were tossed aside as useless and lost are raised up to the glory of God.
So fierce and magnificent is God love for the lepers of this world.

Who are the lepers? They are those who are abandoned and lost as were the lepers of Jesus’ time. They had to live outside the boundaries of society and beg for alms from the passersby at a distance, announcing aloud “Unclean, unclean.”
Jesus, ignoring the taboos about having no contact with lepers, touched their wounds to heal them as an example to his disciples. In this and other healing examples a strange lesson is taught to us. The lepers of this world can heal our own inner leprosy if we but reach out to them.

One day Francis of Assisi met a leper beggar as he was travelling alone on a road. At first he was frightened and repelled by the sight and smell of him. But powerfully moved by the Spirit, young Francis got down off his horse and kissed the despised leper.
This encounter turned out to be the turning point in Francis’ spiritual journey. A deep inner healing took place in him. He was no longer afraid to meet and touch lepers. From that day forward, ministering to lepers was an important part of Francis’ work.
As Isaiah had said about the Crucified Messiah can be said of others who are shunned and rejected by society, “By their wounds we are healed.”

St. Luke’s gospel tells of an encounter Jesus had with the homeless poor of Jerusalem as he carried his cross to the place of his execution. Seeing him bloodied and beaten with whips as he stumbled along with the cross on his shoulder, a group watched him with tears and loud mourning.
He paused and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children…”

Who were these “daughters of Jerusalem?” In ancient societies, cities were referred to as women or mothers. The walls of the city were referred to as the woman’s skirts. This is why even today we speak of the area beyond the city boundary as “the outskirts.”
Those who clung to her skirts, living outside and up against the city walls were the homeless poor. To provide a bit of shelter, they lived in improvised shanties, made from scraps and pieces rescued from the city dumps, also located outside the walls.

These were the daughters of Jerusalem – mostly women with their children, because women were the most vulnerable persons in that ancient society. It was illegal for a woman to own property. When a woman’s husband died or divorced her, she had nothing.
Literally pushed beyond the outer edge of society, the daughters of Jerusalem lived in miserable desperation. They knew of Jesus whom they had heard preaching a God who was in love with the nobodies of the world.
As many others watched his cruel march to death in silence these wretched women offered loud sympathy for Jesus. Jesus in turn offered great sympathy to them. He said that tears of sadness should be given to them because of their misery and hopelessness. “Weep not for me,” he said, “but for yourselves and your starving children.”
Jesus saw in them a rejected, crucified people for whom he mourned. In much the same way that Damien would say “we lepers” many years later, the condemned Jesus could say with these ragged women “we crucified ones.”

Some of the homeless who are our guests may not measure up to the standards of polite society. They have been pushed to the outskirts of our concerns. Some are ex-cons, some have poor manners, some use impolite language.
While we offer them temporary hospitality, we must not speak ill of them. That was not the manner of Jesus who befriended the society living on the outskirts of society.

An example of Jesus’ acceptance of sinners is the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought before him by the religious leaders. She was condemned to be stoned to death. While the circle of men stood around her with stones in their hands, Jesus said, “Let the person without sin throw the first stone.”
Eventually they dropped their stones and walked away. Jesus took the hand of the weeping woman bowed in shame and fear on the ground and helped her to her feet.
He said, “Is there no one to condemn you?”
She answered weakly, “No one, sir.”
Jesus answered, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Let us not call out, even in our hearts, “unclean, unclean” at the sight of the outcast poor in our midst. Though they have been judged deserving of official condemnation, we answer with Jesus, “Neither do I condemn you.”
With Damien, Francis and Jesus we reach out to touch them. By their wounds, may our own wounds be healed.
Our ministry is about healing and reconciliation.