Lest you all think that I spend all my time writing about “controversial” topics, I offer a recent profile of Blessed Fr. Damien de Veuster–a.k.a. Damien of Molokai–that I penned for the devotional monthly The Word Among Us. Blessed Damien will be canonized in Rome on October 11th.
I always enjoy writing, but this piece was a special pleasure. Unlike my wife, who lived for a time in Hawaii, I did not know much about Fr. Damien before I began researching him. His witness to Christ’s love among Hawaiians who had been exiled to the leprosy settlement at Molokai is, of course, well known. I had seen the pictures taken shortly before his death that show him wasted with the physical symptoms of Hansen’s Disease. So I expected that he would come across as some sort of lean ascetic, a St. Simon Stylites of the lava flows.
What really captured me, though, was the raw physicality with which he lived out his vocation. Damien was tremendously strong and vigorous. When he was ministering in Hawaii before his move to Molokai, he would lead parties into the forest to cut timber to build chapels, generally carrying the heaviest logs himself. He spent days on horseback, travelling around the island to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. His decision to volunteer to go to Molokai was of a piece with his entire life, which was always about putting his body in motion for Christ. As someone whose ministerial work focuses on male spirituality, I found Damien’s bold masculinity deeply appealing.
For my money, the best book about Damien is Gavan Daws’ Holy Man. One of the chapters of Daws book is entitled “God’s Athlete,” the source of the title. America magazine has also re-posted a 1994 article on Damien by John Donahue.
While I’m here, let me put in a good word for the publication, the Word Among Us. It is a monthly magazine that contains daily reflections on the scripture readings for Mass and articles on Catholic topics. One of their ministries is an initiative called Partners in Evangelism. Among other things, this ministry provides free copies (in English and Spanish) of the Word Among Us to prisoners. As someone involved in prison ministry, I can attest that there seem to be fewer Catholic resources available in many jails and prisons. So this is a ministry that is doing very good work.