Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Saints in Mercy: St. Damien de Veuster

Are you familiar with the series of books provided for the Year of Mercy by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization?  We will attempt to feature excerpts from these books -- which are meant to provide resources for living the Jubilee -- on this blog throughout the year. 

Today's excerpt comes from the book, The Saints in Mercy, and features St. Damien de Veuster (1840-1889).  Most of us will remember St. Damien as a minister to the lepers on Molokai, Hawaii, who eventually succumbed to leprosy.  However, as The Saints in Mercy points out, Father Damien's works of mercy extended beyond ministering to those living with leprosy:

"If one had to choose and describe Father Damien's most significant and effective work, we should remember one that was usually not very frequently or urgently practiced by Christians.  The catechism formulates it in this way: 'bury the dead.'

"It was the most humane thing he could have done in Molokai given that cures for leprosy were ineffective and even pointless.  Instead, only one thing was certain: death. . . . If we consider that, before his arrival, corpses were abandoned in the open air and even fed to the pigs, we can understand the missionary's decision to 'celebrate death' and give it full human dignity.  In that era, lepers were known as 'the living dead' and the government was even about to pass a law to declare them 'legally dead.' Therefore, death -- in all its associated ugliness and depravity -- permeated the island.

"With holy intelligence, Father Damien realized that he had to start by making death sacred and instilling it with Christian faith in the Resurrection.  Therefore, he built a beautiful cemetery next to his hut.  He also founded a confraternity of funerals.  He tasked its members with the construction of wooden coffins and the accompaniment of the deceased to their final resting place with prayer, music and the beating of drums.  This ceremony occurred at least three times a week: it called everyone to silence and prayer, which replaced the anger and drunkenness they were accustomed to" (28-29).

If St. Damien could practice this work of mercy in the midst of an environment permeated by death, perhaps we could choose to be more attentive to the viewings and funerals of people we know.  How often do we ignore the opportunity to assist in burying the dead because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable for us?  During this Year of Mercy, as we strive to practice more fully the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, can we pay greater attention to burying the dead? 

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