Thursday, September 04, 2008

Blessed Damien and Amazing Grace

American College of the Immaculate Conception, Orientation Week-2008

(This homily was given on 4 September, 2008 during Orientation Week for the new seminarians of the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Belgium. The seminary is located a mere half mile from the resting place of Blessed Damien of Molokai, soon to be canonized a saint. We had the privelege of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at Blessed Damien's crypt, directly beside the saint's remains, located in the Church of St. Anthony of the Sacred Heart Fathers in Leuven, Belgium. For reflection on the gospel reading for that day, see Luke 1:39-56)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

Our gospel this morning is about conversion. We see, in the person of St. Peter, a man who was blind to the God standing right in front of him, but whose eyes were suddenly opened and whose life was changed forever.

“Duc in altum,” Christ commands St. Peter. Put out into the deep! “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). It is an invitation to so much more than fishing, something far deeper than any ocean. But St. Peter cannot see that…not yet.

“Master we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” He was exhausted; all of his own efforts had failed. Nonetheless he obeys: “At your command I will lower the nets” (Luke 5:5). With that St. Peter’s nets are filled and his mind is flooded with the recognition of who this Man is: Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”
—Luke 5:8

It is a request that Christ has no intention of granting, a prayer that will never be answered. From that moment on, St. Peter’s life would never be the same again. His eyes were opened to Christ, and would gradually be opened to all that God had called him to embrace.

We cannot encounter Christ the way St. Peter did and remain blind to God and to the needs of this world. Seeing Christ and hearing His call in our lives changes everything for us. Everything. But it also changes the lives of those around us.

How blessed we are to be here this morning, at the Crypt of Blessed Damien of Molokai. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1864, he came as a missionary to Hawaii to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Less than 10 years later, in 1873, he was sent to assist at the Leper Colony on the Island of Molokai. It was a job that almost no one else wanted, and even those who had the courage to embrace this ministry took turns for several months at a time in order to diminish the chances of becoming infected.

But soon Blessed Damien volunteered to live there permanently. His eyes were opened to the needs of the people there and, as Pope John Paul II said in a homily here in Belgium for Fr. Damien’s Beatification, his love for the people on the Island of Molokai “expressed the tenderness and mercy of Christ towards all people,” and revealed to the world that no one—no leper nor anyone with any disease or illness—is entirely sick, deformed, weak or completely disfigured. We all possess tremendous interior beauty (Homily of Pope John Paul II, in Brussels for the Beatification of Servant of God, Damien de Veuster, 4 June, 1995).

Blessed Damien of Molokai changed the people of that small island, but in the process he also changed the world around him. He changed the way people looked at and treated the sick, and those who witnessed the effects of his ministry were often never the same again.

I am sure you have heard of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote Treasure Island, and many other books and stories. Towards the end of his life he suffered from tuberculosis and, like many of those suffering from that devastating illness, sought refuge and the hope of recovery in tropical climates. One of the places he turned to was Hawaii and, completely against the wishes of his doctor, he travelled to the Island of Molokai just after Blessed Damien had passed away.

It was not that Stevenson was interested in Blessed Damien or seeking some religious experience by going there. Stevenson had grown up in Scotland and had always been somewhat cold and distant when it came to the Christian faith. After hearing firsthand the stories about the Apostle to the Lepers and witnessing its fruits in such a remarkable way, however, he began to see things in a whole new light. He would later say that eight days “on Fr. Damien’s Molokai” changed his life.

At about the same time there was a protestant minister in Hawaii named Rev. Dr. Hyde. Hyde had once publicly praised the work of Damien, yet suddenly he turned against the memory of that celebrated man and slandered his name in the press. People began to doubt the integrity of this great missionary priest and many readily received the lie instead of the truth.

But one of the people who read the article was Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson’s wife later recalled how, after reading Rev. Dr. Hyde’s comments on Damien, he locked himself in his room and began muttering to himself; he was furious. In response he simply turned to the one thing he did best: writing.

Stevenson wrote what he entitled: Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde and offered it first to the Sydney Morning Herald. The letter was eventually circulated rapidly to several different countries and quickly overshadowed the minster’s own letter that had instigated it.

The Rev. Dr. Hyde was especially bitter, it was said, about the final lines of that letter. Stevenson had written:

“The man who did what Damien did is my father ... and the father of all who love goodness: and he was your father too, if God had given you the grace to see it.”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

Where are the places in our lives that we need to open our eyes most as we begin this new experience of seminary formation?

Who are the people in our lives—the suffering, the weak, the fearful, the lonely—that we need to see more clearly and love more completely, like Blessed Damien of Molokai?

Christ is calling us to “put out into the deep”—Duc in altum! We pray this morning that God will open our eyes and help us to be transformed—like St. Peter and like Blessed Damien of Molokai—and to be instruments of transformation, like they were, in the world we live in.