We stayed at the Sacred Hearts Retreat & Spirituality Center in Wareham, Massachusetts, a quiet, beautiful place shielded from the seemingly constant movement I’ve grown used to in the city. Although our surroundings were peaceful, we dedicated these few days to rigorous reflection and consideration of difficult subjects. I will focus this post on one of our sessions, in which we considered the life and legacy of Saint Damien of Molokaʻi. A Roman Catholic priest born in Belgium in 1840, Father Damien was a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the Catholic missionary religious institute from which the retreat center gets its name. He is most well-known for his work in the Kingdom of Hawai’i, ministering to a government-sanctioned leper colony quarantined on the island of Moloka’i. After sixteen years dedicated to this work, he succumbed to leprosy himself, dying at the age of forty-nine. In recognition of his life’s work and mission, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. To this day, he is sometimes called “the Apostle of the lepers”, and is considered a spiritual patron for outcasts.
Perhaps it’s easy to see why we discussed Father Damien. Although we minister to youth instead of lepers, we would all do well to recreate the compassion and limited self-concern of his example. But I worry. I worry because putting pressure on ourselves to live up to the legacy of these martyrs for charity can set us all up for disappointment and disillusionment. We cannot allow this story to make us feel like failures in our own ministries. Instead, I encourage us to use Father Damien as a guard against cynicism. As we conduct our ministries, we can easily be discouraged by the world around us. We hear about all the terrible threats roaming the Earth, seemingly unstoppable. We witness people content to deal with their own concerns, with little regard for the effect on their surroundings. It can be tempting to conclude that there are very few good people left.
Although I’m still new to all of this, I imagine that it’s difficult to do effective ministry with such a mindset.
In these moments of despair or skepticism, we can remember that Father Damien, and others like him, exist, and continue to exist. They can become, not heroic figures that make us feel inadequate, but as reminders of the light that exists in a seemingly dark world. And maybe, just maybe, by sharing these stories with the youth we serve, we can ensure that this hope, this commitment to service even when it seems pointless, will continue.
In other words, we may never live up to Father Damien’s legacy. But we undoubtedly still need to remember it.