Here is the text of the sermon Fr Ian preached at the Good Friday Liturgy at St Chrysostom’s 2019.
It’s the 1850s, and a young Belgian lad, Joseph de Veuster, is working on his father’s farm. His family are devout Roman Catholics. His elder brother has become a priest, but Joseph is needed at home and it seems now that farming will be his vocation. But God has other plans for him, and at last he obtains his father’s permission to become a lay brother in the order in which his elder brother is a priest. It’s the custom in joining many religious communities to take a new name, and Joseph takes the name Damien – after St Damien, an early martyr who had cared for the sick with great devotion.
Soon Damien’s brother is about to set out to the South Seas as a missionary. But before he can go he’s taken ill, and Damien asks if he can go in his place. The authorities agree. Damien sails away, and in 1874 he’s ordained priest in Honolulu. He’s put in charge of a large mission station on the island of Hawaii. He works there for nine years, and with his knowledge of carpentry he builds six churches with his own hands.
But now a new scourge appears in the islands – the scourge of leprosy. The government decides to segregate all the lepers and transport them to the island of Molokai. Here they can live their own lives without risk of spreading the infection, and soon there are two thousand of them. The government’s intentions are good, but for the lepers their separation from family and friends is tragic. They give up hope. They cease to care for themselves. They live in squalor. Their main occupations are gambling and drinking. Robert Louis Stevenson visits the island, and he says that a line from an old song keeps running through his mind, ‘Tis the most distressful country the world has ever seen’. He says, ‘It is a pitiable place to visit, and a hell to dwell in’.
Among the lepers who are segregated on Molokai are some from Damien’s district. Reports reach him of the appalling conditions there. Someone, he feels, must go and care for these people – and that someone, he hears God saying, must be you. He realises that he’ll be lonely, and that he’ll almost certainly contract the disease himself. But here are people in desperate need, and to them he must go. So he obtains permission from his bishop, and at the age of 33 he moves to Molokai.
He comes to the people of Molokai with the simple message that God loves them and that they are still his children. Others may seem to have abandoned them, but God hasn’t. And he backs up his words with actions. He fights for better social conditions, and he gives the government no rest until they provide pure water supplies and timber to build houses. And for ten years Damien is priest, doctor, magistrate, schoolmaster, carpenter, gardener and grave-digger. There’s nothing to which he won’t turn his hand.
But now, at last, the inevitable happens. He spills some boiling water, which splashes on his foot. He’s surprised at first to find that he feels no pain. But then he realises what this means. His foot has lost the power to feel. He has become a leper. But after the first shock he feels a great joy. Now he is really one with his flock. He can speak to them as ‘we lepers’. The last barrier between them has been removed.
Leprosy is a slow death. For six more years Damien works on. Gradually the outside world comes to hear of him and of his work. Cases of comforts are sent to the leper colony. Sisters of Mercy and a doctor arrive. A proper hospital is built. And all the time Damien remains happy, and his happiness is infectious. Someone who visits Molokai towards the end of Damien’s time writes an astonishing description of it, ‘The faces one sees are nearly all happy faces’.
In 1880 Damien dies, still a comparatively young man. And he dies because he loves, and because there is no other way to help those whom he loves except to live and die among them.
I speak of Fr Damien today, Good Friday, because Damien’s life – and death – was a reflection of the life and death of Jesus, his Lord and our Lord. And Jesus par excellence died because he loved, and because there was no other way to help those whom he loved except to live – and die – among them and for them.
We’ve already listened to the scriptures, foretelling his death and describing his death. In a few moments we shall think of the world in all its continuing need – the world in which he lived, the world for which he died – and we shall bring these needs in prayer to our heavenly Father, as he so often did himself.
And then we shall survey the wondrous cross, and have an opportunity of approaching with a sign of reverence and love. And finally we shall receive in Holy Communion the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, reserved from last night’s Mass and share again in his life-giving death. And remember:
He died that we might be forgiven
He died to make us good
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood.
O dearly, dearly has he loved,
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.