Sunday, May 10, 2009

Blessed Damien and the Call to Holiness

(5th Sunday of Easter-Year B; This homily was given on 10 May, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See John 15:1-8)

Five months from now, on October 11, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Blessed Damien of Molokai, acknowledging him as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. This morning, May 10, the Feast day of Blessed Damien, as we celebrate Mass only a few blocks away from Damien’s tomb, I would like to reflect on one simple question: Why?

Why is Blessed Damien being recognized as a Saint? The answer to that question is not as obvious as it may seem. If you asked ten people why Father Damien is being recognized as a Saint I would be willing to bet that many would say something like this: “He was a courageous and generous person who gave his life to serve the lepers on the Island of Molokai.” While those things are certainly true they are not the entire reason why he is being canonized on October 11. A lot of courageous and generous people served the lepers on Molokai. They are not being canonized this fall. Maybe some of them should be. Maybe someday they will be, but on October 11 it will be Father Damien. Why?

There is really only one reason why Blessed Damien will become Saint Damien, and it is the same reason why all the Saints receive that singular distinction: because he was holy.

The word saint, literally, means holy. Sanctus in Latin. Hagios (αγιος) in the Greek. Those words are used—in the Liturgy and in the Scriptures—to describe God Himself. In the Eastern Church they proclaim: Hagios O Theos, Holy is God! Here at this Mass this morning we cry out, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus! Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord!”

God is holy, and we as believers and followers of Christ are also called to that same holiness. It is the goal of each and every baptized Christian: to be holy. That is what it means to be a saint. That is why the church recognizes men and women as saints; because they were holy.

This past week, the General Superiors of Blessed Damien’s order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, sent a letter to their community in preparation for Father Damien’s canonization. In it they acknowledged:

“Holiness is the work of the Lord. His love is what justifies us. From this perspective, the canonization becomes a confession of hope-filled faith. The love of God is at work among us, as it was active in the life of Damien. The love of God can continue to transform us in spite of our weakness and our shadow side.”

There is tremendous hope in that reality for every one of us. Blessed Damien was a courageous and generous man who did great things for God and other people, but he also had a “shadow side,” like the rest of us. Father Damien did not get along well with everyone all the time, and perhaps at times that was not only their fault, but his as well. He had the same struggles that you and I have, but at the very foundation of his life he was holy, and “holiness is the work of the Lord.” He allowed God to work in and through him, in spite of his “shadow side,” and throughout his life the holiness of God shone through. Father Damien was holy.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus teaches us how that happens. He says it happens when we remain in Him:

Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
—John 15:4-5

Nothing? What a remarkable statement! Do we truly believe that? Without God we can do nothing. How’s that for a reality check! Without Christ we can never be saints. Without Him we cannot accomplish anything of lasting value for the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the vine, not us! We are the branches, called to remain in Him. We become holy when we remain with Christ, when we dwell with Christ, when Christ dwells in us and lives in us. We become holy because He is holy, and when we remain in Him, we become like Him and then we bear fruit. That is when we bear much fruit.

Pope John Paul II, in a homily he gave here in Belgium in 1995 on the day Father Damien was beatified (the stage just before one is canonized a saint) said that Damien “lived a particular form of holiness in the course of his ministry; he was at the same time a priest, a religious and a missionary. Through these three qualities he revealed the face of Christ, indicating the way of salvation, teaching the Gospel and being a tireless instrument of development. He organized the religious, social and communal life of Molokai, an island banned from society at that time; yet with him everyone had a place, everyone came to be recognized and loved as his brothers and sisters.”

This is the fruit that Damien de Veuster bore on the Island of Molokai. He surrendered his own will to God over and over again, and became an instrument through which the holiness of God shone through; he was able to do so because he remained in Jesus Christ. He bore great fruit because he was holy.

Pope John Paul II went on to say that we are all called to that same holiness. We are all called to place ourselves before God and at the service of the Church, at the service of our brothers and sisters, like Blessed Damien did. He said:

“Holiness is not perfection according to human criteria. It is not reserved for a select number of exceptional individuals. It is for everyone. It is the Lord who gives us the ability to enter a life of holiness, when we accept that collaboration for the Glory of God and the salvation of the world, in spite of our sin and—at times—our rebellious temperament.”

We all have a “shadow side,” and at times we all have “a rebellious temperament.” But we also have the ability to cooperate with God and to remain in Him. We all have the desire and the capacity to be holy, and to bear much fruit for God and to make a difference in this world we live in. The people of this world are crying out for the kind of holiness that Blessed Damien lived and the way he allowed the love and mercy of God to shine through him. God is calling each one of us to this, and inviting us this morning: Remain in me. Remain in me. And if you do, “you will bear much fruit.”