Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The Lord greatly exalts friendship in chapter 15 of the Gospel according to John. He raises it to an unfathomable level when He declares Himself our friend and teaches us that to give one’s life for another is the most elevated form of love.
Friendship is a form of love. True love always seeks the good of the beloved, even if it entails personal sacrifice. Therefore, the one who is ready to die for a beloved person, for a friend, lives love in its most elevated and radical form.
The Lord not only teaches about friendship with His word, but He also demonstrates it in His own life. He gives it up for us, His creatures, His servants, whom He calls friends. Pope Francis pointed out not too long ago that the Lord calls friend even the one who betrays Him at the very moment when the betrayal is consummated. Indeed, Jesus gives His life up for everybody, absolutely everybody, even those who torture Him and sentence Him to death.
That is the depth of the love of God for us!
That is the love who created us, who became flesh, which is offered to us, which we are invited to participate in and to imitate.
The saints have lived in that friendship, the martyrs have made it manifest by the shedding of their blood.
Next Monday, May 10, the Church remembers St. Damien de Veuster. He is truly a saint for the pandemic. His witness to love and service of lepers made his life so remarkable that he is even recognized in the U.S. Capitol. His statue is in Statuary Hall representing the state of Hawaii.
Father Damien, who was canonized by Benedict XVI, was born in Belgium in 1840. He died in Hawaii in 1889. He went there as a missionary. He landed in Honolulu on 19 March 1864. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 21st.
At that time, the Hawaiian Government decided on the harsh measure of quarantine aimed at preventing the spread of leprosy: the deportation to the neighboring Island of Molokai of all those infected by what was then thought to be an incurable disease. The entire mission was concerned about the abandoned lepers and Bishop Louis Maigret, felt sure they needed priests. He did not want to send anyone “in the name of obedience” because he was aware such an assignment was a potential death sentence. Of the four brothers who volunteered, Damien was the first to leave on 10 May 1873 for Kalaupapa.
At his own request and that of the lepers, he remained on Molokai. Moved by his desire to mitigate the suffering of the lepers, he investigated scientific developments. He experimented new treatments in his own body, which he would share with the persons under his care. Day after day, he looked after them, treating their wounds, consoling the dying, burying those who had died. I do the impossible, he would say, to remain joyful, to lift up the spirit of those under my care. His faith, optimism, availability, would move hearts. Everyone felt invited to share his joy of living, to overcome with faith the limits of their own misery and anxiety.
“The hell of Molokai”, marked by selfishness, despair and immorality became, on account of his actions, a community that brought the attention even of the government.
Houses for the orphans, a church, housing, infrastructure, everything was done with the help of those who were most able to work. The hospital was expanded, a new dock and access roads were built, running water was established. Damien also opened a store where the sick could get what they needed for free. He encouraged people to cultivate the land and plant flowers. To entertain the lepers, he even organized a band. In this way, St. Damien would help the lepers rediscover that in the eyes of God every human being is precious, because He loves us as a father.
St. Damien thought of his presence in the midst of the lepers as that of a father with his children. He knew the risks of daily contact with the sick. He took all reasonable precautions and avoided contagion for more than a decade. However, eventually he also became ill. With full confidence in God, he declared in those moments: “I am happy and filled with joy. If I was given a choice to leave this place so that I could be healthy, I would answer without any doubt: I stay with my lepers my entire life.”
The life and example of Fr. Damien are particularly relevant for these times of pandemic, when many, even those who do not know him, imitate his example in their dedicated and quiet work on behalf of the infected.
Last week we celebrated St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. I heard Miami Beach Fire Chief, Virgil Fernandez, once say that the vocation of the firefighter is to run to places that people run away from.
This week the United States will observe Nurse appreciation week, in commemoration of the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. The presence of coronavirus in our midst made patently manifest the risks that healthcare workers assume to look after us.
Firefighters, nurses, healthcare workers, incarnate day in day out the text of chapter 15 in the Gospel according to St. John. Risking their lives not just for their friends, but for people that are complete strangers to them, with whom they share in our common human nature. The very same nature that God Himself has embraced out of love for us.
If we exist, can love and experience the love of others, it is because of that primordial love that loved us first. The love of God, who invites us to participate in His own divine life, by offering Himself up for us on the cross, which by his resurrection has become the true Tree of Life.
May the example of Father Damien help us to navigate these days of pandemic in the love of God, imitating the outpouring of love in the image of Him who gave Himself up for us! This month of May, let us continue to pray the rosary with Pope Francis asking the Blessed Mother and St. Damien to intercede for an end to the pandemic that has taken and continues to take so many lives!
Fr. Roberto M. Cid