In this week’s blog, Fr Paddy reminds us that God loves us not for who we want to be, but for who we are.

FrDamien

Fr Paddy Byrne has a weekly column in the Nationalist Papers.

This column appeared on 14th October 2009

Last Sunday, Pope Benedict presided over the canonisation ceremony of a remarkable prophet of hope to those who are most alienated and indeed isolated in life. Fr Damien de Veuster, champion of the lepers of Molokai is an inspiration and symbol of hope to all who are hopeless and live with great poverty.

At the age of 33, he volunteered as a Belgian member of the Sacred Heart congregation, to live in an unknown and forsaken place, in the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. To live and serve people living with leprosy, now known as Hansens disease. Fr Damien emersed himself in the terrible broken and vulnerable reality where he lived. He was a glimmer of light and hope to a people who were devastated by stigma and exclusion. There was no law and order in the place and a constant shortage of supplies, medical treatment and food. Housing for the suffering was totally lacking. It was in this most desperate, dark and lonely isolated place where Fr Damien worked tirelessly for 16 years, often alone and unaided.

He cleaned and bandaged wounds, amputated gangrenous limbs, built more than 300 simple houses, erected eight churches and chapels and laid a pipeline to bring fresh water to the settlement. It is estimated that Fr Damien made more than 1,600 coffins without any outside assistance, dug graves and buried the dead to guarantee that in death they would have some dignity that we may well take for granted. It was only shortly before his death, that help arrived to support the generosity and compassion he had shared with all whom he encountered. Damien identified with the lepers – he smoked their pipes and ate from their dishes. It was only too inevitable that he would contact the disease himself.

The moment of his awareness that he had contracted the disease is represented dramatically in many of the films made about his life. He was washing his foot in a basin of water and when he was finished with one foot and put his second foot in the basin, he had to pull it out quickly for the water was almost boiling hot. It dawned on him that he was now himself a leper. In his homilies at Mass in the settlement up to this time, he addressed his congregation as You, lepers but on the next occasion, he started with We, lepers. This solidarity gave great hope and witness to a people who were downtrodden and rejected by stigma and prejudice. Christ-like he embraced human suffering, so that empathy and love would overcome fear and repression.

Many in our community feel excluded at this time, because of many different circumstances. One of the great liberating truths of our faith is that our God never abandons us. God loves us not for who we want to be, but for who we are. Wherever we may experience alienation or stigma, Gods radical love is reserved fundamentally for such circumstance. May we have courage to be a light of compassion and hope to the many who feel alienated and abandoned in our world.