Yesterday the Church celebrated the feast day of St. Damien of Molokai. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, I reflected on the life of Fr. Damien and how striking of an example his life can be for us today. Fr. Damien was a priest in the second half of the 19th century known for his work with the leper colony on the Kalaupapa Peninsula in Hawaii. Fr. Damien initially went to the leper colony to provide support for the residents. He helped balance and stabilize the basic necessities of life for the people who lived in the colony. Even though his ministry at the colony was only supposed to be temporary, Fr. Damien discerned God’s will and recognized the need of the residents and stayed there for the rest of his life, walking with everyone in the colony. He eventually died in 1889 from leprosy he contracted from his work there.
As an aspiring Catholic doctor and scientist, I have looked up to Fr. Damien. The funny thing is that Fr. Damien was neither a medical doctor nor a scientist! He was a priest who discerned God’s call to care for the physical health and well-being of the people in the leper colony. Two elements of Fr. Damien’s life have been particularly impactful for me that I think are especially relevant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Firstly, I am inspired by Fr. Damien’s discernment of God’s will in caring for the health and well-being of the residents, and his courage to follow God’s will. I think it is very easy to see the path of least resistance and assume that it is the “right” path. But Fr. Damien teaches us a different lesson. He knew it would have been easier to stay at the leper colony temporarily, but instead of placing his will first, Fr. Damien placed God’s will first. Even though this meant continuing an incredibly challenging ministry that he was not particularly qualified for, Fr. Damien followed God’s will. He opened his heart to be filled with grace and courage to continue his ministry.
Secondly, Fr. Damien can serve as a role model for us today in recognizing the interconnected nature of physical health and spiritual health. This school year, I have found myself quarantining and isolating on multiple occasions. We weren’t allowed to walk outside or anything in isolation. I found it hard to get the energy to watch online Mass or much less do anything when physically I couldn’t go anywhere. In his ministry on the leper colony, Fr. Damien recognized that part of caring for one’s spiritual health included caring for their physical health. He devoted himself to holistically improving the living conditions of those in the leper colony to the greatest extent that he could. He lived a life of service, always adapting to the greatest need of the people he was with.
I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist yet, and most of us will never be. So, I find myself thinking, how can I connect the lessons from Fr. Damien’s life to my day-to-day life? One way I think we can do that is by discerning God’s will for us, even in small, routine actions. In our workplaces, schools, parishes, and other places we frequent, we can discern God’s will for using our gifts to benefit the community. These might not be big, grand ways like Fr. Damien, but lots of small actions over time that build up to have a great effect! And, just like Fr. Damien, we can pray for the grace and courage to live out God’s will throughout our lives. A second way we can live out Fr. Damien’s lessons is by helping to care for our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. in their physical health. If we know someone is having to quarantine, we can drop off food outside to them. As the weather is getting nicer, we can go on socially distanced walks outdoors or other outdoor activities. While we aren’t called to a leper colony in Hawaii like Fr. Damien, we can still connect our physical and spiritual health right where we are and learn from Fr. Damien as a role model for us today.
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us!