He was the Mother Theresa of his day. Just as Mother Theresa brought the plight of the poor in Calcutta to the world’s attention, so this saint showed the world the suffering of those living with leprosy on the island of Molokai.
His name was Saint Damien of Molokai.
Born in Belgium in 1840, he joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts with his brother. Though his brother was originally supposed to go to Hawaii, he became sick and Damien would have to go in his place.
Upon arriving in Molokai and witnessing the inhumane conditions the lepers were forced to live under, his heart went out to them. In fact, the conditions were so difficult that missionaries were only sent to live there three months at a time and then were sent back home to rest. However, Damien asked to stay past the usual three months, so much did he desire to bring comfort to them. Through his efforts, he was able to build permanent housing and bring medical care to the colony.
After working so closely with the lepers of Molokai, he eventually contracted the disease himself. Rather than make him bitter and resentful, it drove him to give even more of himself in service to those most desperate of people. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Christ.” The disease finally took his life in 1889, but his efforts inspired a generation of Christians to seek out and share their lives with those who suffer from disease and poverty.
Jesus touched many people during his brief life. None were more desperate than lepers. They were true outcasts. As they journeyed about they were forced to cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people that they were nearby. Imagine what it would be like to have people run away from you whenever they saw you. What a lonely, painful life it must have been!
Not only were they ostracized because of the ugly sores the disease produced on their skin, they were also considered the worst of sinners. It was believed that it must have been because of some terrible sin they committed that they would be punished with such a painful illness. So not only did lepers feel rejected by the community, they also felt abandoned by God.
So imagine what it would have been like to have Jesus not run away from them, but actually reach out and touch them. Imagine being looked at with love for the first time in years. Imagine hearing Jesus say to you, “I do will it. Be healed.” Imagine the hope of being finally reunited with your family, finally able to embrace your wife and children, finally being told that you are welcome back home. It must have been an exhilarating experience to finally have hope again, to finally have a life worth living.
Thankfully, diseases like leprosy are not as widespread and as untreatable as they were in the past. And thankfully we understand how illness works and do not consider it a punishment from God. However, there are still many people who are physically healthy but in their spirits suffer the same torments as lepers. They feel unloved, alone in their struggles and abandoned by God. They are teenagers who need so desperately to belong but are unable to relate to their parents or to their peers. They are the elderly who have lost so many of their loved ones and have no one to share their memories with or to visit them. They are the divorced who live with deep feelings of rejection and failure. They are each one of us who struggle with sin and our own weaknesses, who feel so often like hypocrites because we believe the words of Jesus but can find them so difficult to live out. All of us need hope. All of us need to know that we are loved despite our warts and bruises. All of us need to know that someone cares and that we are not alone.
That is what Jesus came to bring. Hope for the hopeless. There is no one outside of the circle of God’s faithful, unconditional love. There is no wound He cannot heal, no obstacle He cannot overcome and no sin that He cannot forgive. The more desperate our situation appears, the closer Jesus is to us. Jesus never rejects or abandons anyone. He died so that all of us could find forgiveness, healing and salvation. In fact, when Jesus appeared to the great mystic, Saint Faustina, He told her, “The greater the sinner, the more right he has to my mercy.” Jesus came for sinners. He came for you and me. We can go before Him with confidence for He knows what we need and He desires to heal us.
Where can we go to find this healing that Jesus offers us? Where do we experience the depth and power of His mercy? The best first step on the road to healing and recovery is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession is one of the great healing sacraments. There we honestly reveal our wounds to Jesus, and He reaches out to touch us and help us understand that we are loved. Jesus is really present to us in this great sacrament through the ministry of the priest. We are telling our sins directly to Jesus and we are being forgiven directly by him. Many people avoid going to confession out of fear or out of a bad experience they may have had in the past. That is understandable. But why carry that burden of shame and fear any longer when we can know real healing and forgiveness by a simple act of honestly confessing our sins? Why continue to feel alone in our grief and anguish when we can lay them at the foot of the cross and know joy again? All this is offered to us through this great sacrament of healing, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Jesus came to teach us how to live a full and joyful life. He wants us to know real, lasting peace and freedom. We can go to Him as we are, with our weakness, bruises and warts and be confident that He will love us no matter what. All He asks in return is that we show the same love and forgiveness to one another in return. Like Saint Damien did, we are to reach out to the lonely, the sick and the imprisoned to bring them the hope we have discovered in the love of God revealed in Jesus.
Who in our lives could use a little love and compassion? Let us bring those people to Jesus in prayer as we continue this liturgy and ask for the courage to show them the loving face of Christ.