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Damien a hero to all


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POSTED: Sunday, October 11, 2009

Particulars of the Roman Catholic Church's process of elevating a deceased church member to sainthood might sometimes be of passing interest. Today's canonization of Father Damien de Veuster is not such a case, for his heroics and goodness amid the leprosy sufferers of Molokai merit elevation that crosses denominational — indeed, theological — lines and should be celebrated by all.

That level of appreciation for the Belgian-born Joseph de Veuster, who took the name of a third-century Christian martyr and physician, to the altar in 1859, was obvious during his lifetime. He would have quickly become a saint during the church's first thousand years, when a local church could simply declare someone holy.

Arriving in Honolulu in 1864 and ordained a Catholic priest in Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, he was assigned by the church to the Big Island and, in 1873, volunteered to serve as pastor of Hansen's disease patients who had been banished to Molokai.

In an 1863 letter to his brother Pamphile, also a priest, Damien told of providing assistance to all the patients without distinction of religion.

“;Consequently every one, with the exception of a few bigoted heretics, look on me as father,”; he wrote.

“;As for me,”; he added, “;I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why in preaching, I say 'we lepers' not 'my brethren' as in Europe.”;

Eleven years would pass before Damien discovered he had contracted leprosy. He died of the disease in 1889 at age 49.

Damien's potential stature was not recognized by the Vatican until 1977, when Pope Paul VI declared Damien to be “;venerable,”; a man of heroic virtue, the first step toward sainthood. Although the pope can declare a saint immediately, the normal process is that two miracles must be associated with the potential saint. Most of the miracles involve inexplicable cures from disease in association with prayers.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II approved the cure of a 37-year-old French nun in 1895 as a miracle attributed to a novena — a nine-day ritual — she had begun to Damien. Her pain and symptoms were said to have disappeared overnight, and she lived for 32 more years.

The second miracle surfaced six years ago, when retired Aiea teacher Audrey Toguchi conveyed to John Paul II that her medically inexplicable cancer cure in 1998 followed her prayer at Damien's grave at Kalaupapa. Pope Benedict XVI approved the cure as the second Damien-related miracle in July of last year, setting the stage for today's entry into the canon of saints at St. Peter's Square.

“;It's not the Catholic Hall of Fame,”; Hawaii Catholic Bishop Larry Silva told the Star-Bulletin's Mary Adamski. “;What I hope most of all with these celebrations is that we catch more of Damien's spirit, his love of God and his dedication to those who are in need.”;

The emphasis on miracles might bring sneers from those outside the Catholic Church and even from within. The process should not color the justification of the result: Saint Damien.