Friday, September 25, 2009

Saint Damien's Cheering Section

Given all the moment's focus on health-care, it's worth noting that next month'll see the canonization of two figures already well famed and loved for their devoted service to the sick and aged.

Lest anyone's thinking politically, however, the timing's pure coincidence: the miracles securing sainthood for Blesseds Damien de Veuster and Jeanne Jugan cleared their final hurdles in early 2008, and their 11 October elevation to the honors of the altar was scheduled in the first weeks of this year.

To honor the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hawaii's Belgian-born "Leper Priest," hundreds of elderly and infirm folks in the care of their respective successors will lead the Roman pilgrimages to the rites... of them all, though, the most poignant group is likely to be a delegation of 11 leprosy patients from Kalaupapa, the island colony where Damien ministered before dying of the disease in 1889:
In the 1870s, the leprosy patients Damien cared for were shunned by most people, even doctors, because of an intense stigma that was associated with the disease.

Today's patients from Kalaupapa, the isolated peninsula where Hawaii's leprosy patients were banished for more than 100 years, feel particularly close to Damien.

Dr. Kalani Brady, their physician, said Thursday the trip to Rome will be an "energy-laden" voyage for many of his patients.

"They're going to see their personal saint canonized," said Brady, 53, who will accompany the group to Rome. It's "incredibly important, incredibly personal for them," he said.

The reverence for Damien transcends religious sects, Brady said, noting that one 84-year-old making the trip is Mormon.

"He's bound to a wheelchair, he's completely blind. So it's important enough for him to go, despite the hurdles which he has to overcome," Brady said....

The pope is expected to meet privately with the patients during their stay in Rome.

The 11 are among about 20 patients who still live at Kalaupapa. The Kingdom of Hawaii began banishing leprosy patients to the remote section of Molokai island in the 1860s to control an outbreak of the disease that was killing Native Hawaiians in large numbers....

Today, many patients still have to fight the indignity of stereotypes and misperceptions about the illness.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is spread by direct person-to-person contact, although it's not easily transmitted. It can cause skin lesions and lead to blindness.

But it's been curable since the development of sulfone drugs in the 1940s, and people treated with drugs aren't contagious.

Damien built homes for the sick, changed their bandages and ate poi, a Hawaiian staple, from the same bowl as the patients. He put up no barriers between himself and those he ministered to.

He was diagnosed with leprosy 12 years after he arrived and died five years later in 1889.

Overall, some 650 people from Hawaii are traveling to Rome for the canonization. Most, between 520 and 550, are expected to be part of the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu's delegation.
In recent years, Damien's become an unofficial patron both for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, and society's outcasts in general.

In the days following the canonization, several Mainland cities will join the celebrations as a relic of the American West's first saint makes its way back to Hawaii; after a tour of the islands, the piece of Damien's right heel will be kept at Honolulu's Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, where the saint-to-be was ordained a priest in 1869.