When Damien de Veuster arrived in Hawaii in 1864, he found an island-community beset by infections. Over the years, travelers and seamen had introduced diseases like influenza and syphilis. Yet none were as bad as Hansen’s Disease, more commonly known as leprosy. First reported in Hawaii in 1840, leprosy devastated people in many ways. First, because the disease was highly contagious and untreatable until the 1930s, people contracting it had no hope of recovery. This often led to deep depression among its sufferers. Second, leprosy caused a progressive degeneration of their skin, eyes, and limbs. It thus disfigured people and eventually immobilized them. Finally, few diseases isolated people from their communities as much as leprosy. Sufferers were seen as outcasts and cautioned to stay away from everyone else.
In 1866, to curb the spread of the disease, Hawaiian authorities decided to consign lepers to an isolated community on the island of Molokai. On three sides, the colony, called Kalaupapa, bordered the Pacific Ocean, and the fourth side featured massive, 1,600-foot cliffs. Once the lepers were out of sight and no longer a threat to the general population, the government turned a blind eye to their basic needs. Shipments of food and supplies slowed down, and the government removed most of its personnel. The result was a highly dysfunctional community marked by poverty, alcoholism, violence, and promiscuity.
Puritan missionaries became convinced that leprosy stemmed from the people’s licentiousness. But Damien knew that was not true. He believed the people on Molokai were basically good, not corrupt, and that sin did not cause the spread of the disease.
In time, Damien came to see the neglected colony as the answer to his boyhood longings for adventurous missionary work. He asked the local bishop for permission to go to Molokai, and the bishop not only granted approval, but personally accompanied Damien to the island. He introduced Damien to the 816 community members as “one who will be a father to you and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you.”
This introduction did not surprise Damien, who had no illusions about what his mission would entail. He knew working in the disease-ridden colony virtually guaranteed that he would become infected too. Yet he never wavered in his commitment.
At first, the conditions around the lepers proved overwhelming. Damien often felt as if he had opened a door to hell. Victims wandered about, their bodies in ruin and their constant coughing the island’s most familiar sound. Damien could hardly bear the stench:
“Many a time in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers’ homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell, I got myself accustomed to the use of tobacco. The smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the obnoxious odor of our lepers.”
Eventually Damien overcame the distressing sights and smells. His superiors had given him strict advice: “Do not touch them. Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.” But Damien made the decision to transcend his fear of contagion and enter into solidarity with the Molokai lepers. He committed to visit every leper on the island and to inquire of their needs.
One early realization was that to show the lepers the value of their lives, he had to first demonstrate the value of their deaths. So he built a fence around the local cemetery, which pigs and dogs regularly scavenged. He also constructed coffins and dug graves, committing that each leper, even if marginalized throughout his life, would receive a decent burial upon death. This had a remarkably uplifting effect on the community.
Damien also devoted his attention to the sick. He brought the sacraments to bedridden lepers. He washed their bodies and bandaged their wounds. He tidied their rooms and did all he could to make them as comfortable as possible.
What surprised the lepers most was that Damien touched them. Other missionaries and doctors shrank from the lepers. In fact, one local doctor only changed bandages with his cane. But Damien not only touched the lepers, he also embraced them, he dined with them, he put his thumb on their forehead to anoint them, and he placed the Eucharist on their tongues. All of these actions spoke volumes to the dejected lepers. They showed that Damien did not want to serve them from afar; he wanted to become one of them.
Damien was careful never to present himself as a messianic figure, soaring in from a higher, more privileged position. He invited lepers to join in the work, turning his service to the community into an act of solidarity. He had them help build everything from coffins to cottages. When the colony expanded along the island’s peninsula, his leper friends helped construct a new road. Under his supervision, the lepers even blasted away rocks on the shoreline to create a new docking facility. Damien also taught the lepers to farm, raise animals, play musical instruments, and sing. Although the lepers were used to being patronized or bullied, Damien spread among them a new cheer and sense of worth.
This refreshing spirit impressed visitors to the island. “I had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself,” wrote Englishman Edward Clifford in 1888, “and the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life were all surprises. These poor people seemed singularly happy.”
Despite the idyllic community Damien had built through a decade of work, the moment he feared finally arrived in December 1884. One day, while soaking his feet in extremely hot water, Damien experienced no sensation of heat or pain—a tell-tale sign that he had contracted leprosy. The disease quickly developed, causing Damien to write to his bishop with the news: “Its marks are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows are beginning to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Soon, he also wrote home to his brother: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Even before contracting the disease, Damien spoke of himself and the people of Molokai as “we lepers.” He identified closely with those he came to serve and thus, before and after the disease, offered a powerful, concrete expression of solidarity. And it was for that reason he become known not by his homeland, but by the island community he served—Saint Damien of Molokai, patron of lepers.
Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author and works as the Senior Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Reprinted with permission from StrangeNotions.com
I was listening in disbelief to the chastising words of my home daycare provider. Her disapproving look and tone only added to the churning in my stomach. There are few things as common to the human experience as feeling the sting of rejection or criticism. It is hard to hear less than flattering words about our behavior or character at any time, but particularly difficult when the critique leveled is one that feels unfair or inaccurate. As my husband often said, “Perception is reality;” I have come to see the truth of that statement time and again. Thus accusations that wound the most deeply are ones that seemingly come out of nowhere when the judgment of our actions may or may not reflect the intentions of our heart. Some years ago I was the recipient of the actions of one who misunderstood my intentions. Awaiting Miracle At the time, I was a mother in my late 30s, who was very grateful to have two toddlers. Despite intentional, well-timed efforts to conceive, for a full year, parenthood remained merely a dream for my husband and me. Leaving the gynecologist’s office after yet another visit, I reluctantly accepted what seemed inevitable: our only option now was the use of fertility drugs. Heading toward the car, I remarked dismally, “I guess we should stop at the pharmacy on the way home to get this prescription filled.” It was then that I heard my husband say, “Let’s give God one more month.” What?? We had already given Him a year and had been married nearly two. Our courtship had been slow to bloom. The years had added up until I was now 33 and hearing the steady ticking of my “biological clock.” Now driving home, I supposed I could wait one more month to start that drug… I peered down at the white stick’s center with the now-blue line. Excitement gripped me, and I ran out of the bathroom, shouting wildly, “We’re pregnant!!” 10 days later, I stood in front of my prayer community “family” of faith and proclaimed the good news, knowing that many of these friends had joined us in praying for this baby’s existence. Swinging Pendulum Now, four years later, we had both our long-awaited baby girl, Kristen, and our gregarious one-year- old son, Timmy, and I was listening in disbelief to the chastising words of my home daycare provider, “Miss Phyllis.” Phrases like “rebellion in children needing to be squelched,” Scriptures written out in longhand outlining the consequences of the apparent error of my ways. Her disapproving look and tone added to the churning in my stomach. I wanted to defend myself, to explain how I had read one parenting book after the other and that I tried to do everything the way the “experts” suggested. I stammered about how much I loved my children and was trying with all my heart to be a good mother. Holding back the tears, I left, the children in tow. Arriving home, I put Timmy down for a nap and settled Kristen in her room with a book to thumb through, so I could have some time to process what had just happened. As was my usual response to any crisis or problem in my life, I began to pray and seek the Lord for understanding. I realized I had two choices: I could deny the words of this woman who had been a patient, loving caregiver for my children since my daughter was 13 months old. I could try to justify my actions, reassert my intentions, and begin the process of finding a new provider for my children. Or I could examine what might have caused her to react uncharacteristically and see if there was a kernel of truth in her chastisement. I chose the latter, and as I sought the Lord, I realized I had allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the direction of love and mercy toward my children. I had used their young ages to excuse their disobedience, believing that if I just loved them enough, they would eventually do what I had asked them to. Before the Fall I couldn’t pretend Phyllis’s words hadn’t hurt. They had, deeply. Whether her perception of my parenting was, in actuality true, didn’t matter. What did matter was if I was willing to humble myself and learn from this situation. As the “Good Book” says, “Pride goes before a fall,” and heaven knows, I had already fallen pretty far off the pedestal of perfect parenting that I had set for myself. I certainly couldn’t afford another fall by clinging to my pride and hurt. It was time to acknowledge that the “experts” who write the books may not be the ones to listen to exclusively. Sometimes it is the voiceof experience that deserves our attention. The next morning, I helped the kids into their car seats and drove the familiar route to Kristen and Timmy’s caregiver, Phyllis. I knew I might not agree at times with advice that might be imparted from her in the future, but I did know that it took a wise and courageous woman to risk challenging me for the good of our family. After all, the word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple,” which means “to learn.” I had been a disciple of Jesus for many years, striving to live His ideals and principles. I had grown to trust Him as I encountered His enduring love again and again in my life. I would accept this discipline now, knowing it was a reflection of His love that wanted the best for not only me but for our family. Clambering out of the car, the three of us approached the front door when I paused to read once again the wooden hand-carved sign that was perched at eye level: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Yes, that was what Phyllis had done. Just as the Lord does for us every day, if we have ears to hear, He “disciplines those He loves.” Jesus, our Teacher, works through those willing to risk rejection for the sake of another person’s good. Surely, Phyllis was striving to follow in His footsteps. Recognizing that this faith-filled woman intended to pass on what she had learned from the Master for my benefit, I knocked on the front door. As it swung open to allow us to enter, so too, did the door of my heart.
Ever heard of a robber who turned into a Saint? Moses the Black was a leader of a band of thieves who attacked, robbed, and murdered travelers in the Egyptian desert. The very mention of his name spread terror in people’s hearts. On one occasion, Moses had to hide in a monastery and was so amazed at the way he was treated by the Monks that he converted and became a monk! But the story doesn’t end there. Once, four of the robbers of his former band descended upon the cell of Moses. He had lost none of his great physical strength, so he tied them all up. Throwing them over his shoulder, he brought them to the monastery, where he asked the Elders what to do with them. The Elders ordered that they be set free. The robbers, learning that they had chanced upon their former ringleader and that he had dealt kindly with them, followed his example: they repented and became monks. Later, when the rest of the band of robbers heard about the repentance of Moses, they also gave up their thievery and became fervent monks. After many years of monastic struggles, Moses was ordained deacon. For another fifteen years, he continued his monastic labors. About 75 disciples gathered around the saintly Elder, who had been granted the gifts of wisdom, foresight, and power over demons by the Lord. Once, a certain brother committed an offense in Scete, the camp of the monks. When a congregation was assembled to decide on this matter, they sent for Abba Moses, but he refused to come. Then they sent the priest of the church to him, imploring, “Come, for all the people are expecting you,” and finally, he responded to their pleas. Taking a basket with a hole in it, he filled it with sand and carried it upon his shoulders. Those who went out to meet him asked, “What does this mean, O Father?” And he replied, “The sands are my sins, which are running down behind me, and I cannot see them. Yet, I have come here today to judge shortcomings that are not mine.” When they heard this, they set that brother free and said nothing further to him.
At half past six, when it was still pitch dark and freezing cold, Joshua Glicklich heard a whisper, a whisper that brought him back to life. My upbringing was very typical like that of any northern lad here in the United Kingdom. I went to a Catholic school and had my first Holy Communion. I was taught the Catholic faith, and we went to Church very often. By the time I got to the age of 16, I had to choose my education, and I chose to do my levels, not at a Catholic sixth form, but at a secular school. That is when I started to lose my faith. The constant pushing of the teachers and priests to deepen my faith and love of God was no longer there. I ended up at university, and this is where my faith was really tested. In my first semester, I was partying, going to all these different events, and not making the best choices. I made some really big mistakes--like going out drinking until God knows what time in the morning and living a life that didn’t make any sense. That January, when students had to return from their first-semester break, I returned a bit earlier than everyone else. That unforgettable day in my life, I woke up at about half past six in the morning. It was pitch black and freezing cold. Even the foxes that I used to see outside my room weren’t to be seen—it was that cold and horrible. I perceived an inaudible voice within me. It wasn’t a nudge or a push that was uncomfortable for me. It felt like a quiet whisper of God saying, “Joshua, I love you. You are my son … come back to me.” I could have easily walked away from that and totally ignored it. Yet I remembered that God does not abandon His children, no matter how far we have strayed. Though it was raining hailstones, I walked to Church that morning. As I put one foot in front of the other, I thought to myself, “What am I doing? Where am I going?” Yet God kept moving me forward, and I arrived at the church for the eight o’clock Mass on that cold, wintry day. For the first time since I was about 15 or 16, I let the words of the Mass wash over me. I heard the Sanctus— “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.” Just before that, the priest said, “Joining with the choirs of the angels and the saints…” I put my heart into it and focused. I sensed angels descending on the altar to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I remember receiving the Holy Eucharist and thinking, “Where have I been, and what has all of this been about if not for Him?” As I received the Eucharist, a flood of tears overcame me. I realized that I was receiving the body of Christ. He was there within me, and I was His tabernacle—His resting place. From then on, I began to attend student Mass regularly. I met many Catholics who loved their faith. I often remember the quote by Saint Catherine of Siena, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” That’s what I saw in these students. I saw the Lord letting these people be who they were meant to be. God guided them gently like a Father. They were setting the world on fire—they were evangelizing by making their faith known to others on campus, sharing the Good News. I wanted to get involved, so I became part of the university chaplaincy. During this time, I learned to love my faith and to express it to others in a way that wasn’t overbearing but Christ-like. A few years later, I became the president of the Catholic Society. I had the privilege of leading a group of students in their faith development. During this time, my faith grew. I became an altar server. That’s when I got to know Christ—being up close to the altar. The priest says the words of transubstantiation, and the bread and wine turn into the true Body and Blood of Christ. As an altar server, all of this was right there in front of me. My eyes were opened to the absolute miracle that happens everywhere, at every Mass, on every altar. God respects our free will and the journey of life we take. However, to reach the right destination, we have to choose Him. Remember that no matter how far we have strayed away from God, He is always there with us, walking right beside us and guiding us to the right place. We are nothing but pilgrims on a journey to Heaven.
Born with non-verbal autism and diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition in which sight is gradually lost, he felt trapped in a silent prison of despair. Not able to communicate and hardly able to see…what would Colum’s life be? But God had other plans for him… My name is Colum, but in all my 24 years, I have never spoken my own name because I have been non-verbal since birth. As a child, I was assessed and identified with moderate autism and a severe learning disability. My life was very boring. My parents fought for my right to an education, setting up a school with other parents of autistic children and battling for funding to continue it. But because I couldn’t communicate, they didn’t know what my brain was capable of, and I found the material dull. People thought I was happier at home watching DVDs. I did not even go on holiday after I turned 8. I did not believe that I would ever break free of my silent prison of hopelessness and despair. Watching Others Live I always felt that Jesus was close to me. From my earliest days, He became my closest friend and remains so, to this day. In my darkest moments, He was there to give me hope and comfort. It was very trying to have everyone treat me like a baby when I was intelligent inside. My life felt unbearable. I seemed to be living a half-life as an onlooker, watching others living life while I was excluded. How often I wished I could take part and show my true ability. By the time I was 13, my eyesight was failing, so I was taken to Temple Street Children’s Hospital for an eye test called an electroretinogram(ERG). God had given me another challenge. I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a condition where the cells of the retina at the back of the eye die off and are not replaced, so the sight is gradually lost. There is no medical cure to fix this. I was devastated. It was such an awful blow to me, and I felt overwhelmed by sadness. For a while, my vision stabilized, giving me hope that I would retain some sight, but as I got older, my sight got worse and worse. I became so blind that I couldn’t tell the difference between different colors anymore. My future looked black. I couldn’t communicate, and now I could hardly see. My life continued in grey despair with even less inclusion and interaction. My mother now believed that I would have to be institutionalized when I got older. I felt like I was teetering on the edge of insanity. Only God stood between me and madness. The love of Jesus was the only thing keeping me sane. My family knew nothing of my struggle because I couldn’t communicate with them, but in my heart, I felt Jesus telling me that I would be healed in time. Whirling Inside In April 2014, something amazing happened. My Mum took me to my first RPM (Rapid Prompt Method) workshop. I could hardly believe it. I finally met someone who believed in me, who believed that I could communicate, and who would help me put the hard work into learning how to. Can you imagine my delight? For an instant, my heart began to hope—hope, not fear, that the real me might emerge. Help had finally arrived. Joy whirled inside me at the thought that someone finally saw my potential. So began my life-changing journey into communication. It was very hard work at first, taking weeks of practice to gain the motor memory to be able to spell accurately. It was worth every minute. Feelings of freedom began to grow as I found my voice at last. As God started this new chapter in my story, it felt like my life had finally begun. At last, I could tell my family about how I was feeling, and I felt so grateful to God. Lashing & Biting Jumping forward to May 2017. My granny told us she had a very vivid dream a few years ago about Pope John Paul II. In the dream, she was asking him to pray for her grandchildren, and it was so powerful that she wrote it down. She had forgotten about it until she came across the copybook, and it inspired her to start a novena to Pope Saint John Paul II for my siblings and me. She asked a group of people to pray the novena with us beginning on Monday, 22nd May. On Tuesday, the 23rd, at about 9 am, I was watching a DVD in my room off the kitchen. Dad had gone to work, and Mum was in the kitchen cleaning. Suddenly, our dog, Bailey, started barking at the door of my room. She had never done anything like that before, so Mum knew something was wrong. She rushed in and found me in the throes of a fit. It was very frightening for her. I was lashing about and had bitten my tongue so there was blood on my face. In her distress, Mum got a sense of someone saying, “Just trust. Sometimes things get worse before they get better”. She called Dad, who promised to come home. He asked her to take a video of me which was very useful when we got to the hospital. When I stopped jerking, I was in a stupor for over two minutes. I had lost consciousness during this ordeal, and I don’t remember anything about it, but Mum had been praying for me and watching over me to keep me safe. A Moment of Illumination When I finally came to and staggered to my feet, I was very unsteady. Mum and Dad helped me into the car for the drive to the hospital (UCHG). At the hospital, the doctors examined me and admitted me to the hospital for further investigation. The porter came with the wheelchair to move me to the Acute Medical Ward. While I was being wheeled along the corridor, I suddenly got a very dramatic improvement in my eyesight. How can I describe my feelings at that moment? I felt mesmerized by the beauty of the sights around me. Everything looked so different and so clear. It was amazing! It is impossible to explain how I felt in that moment of illumination. I can’t express the degree of my wonder at returning to a world of color and shape. It was the best moment of my life so far! When Mum asked me if I had something to say, I spelled out, “My eyes are better.” Mum was astounded. She asked if I could see a sticker on a machine outside my cubicle. I said, “Yes.” She asked if I could see what was written on the top of the sticker. I spelled out, “I am clean.” She was so astonished that she didn’t know what to think or how to react. I didn’t know how to feel at this moment myself! When Dad and my aunt came in, Mum told them what had happened. Dad said, “We will have to test this.” He went to the curtain at the end of my bed and held up a small bag of dairy-free chocolate buttons. I spelled out what was written on the bag. Then it was rapid fire for a while as he gave me lots of words to spell in the next few minutes. I got all the words right. My aunt and parents were amazed. How was this possible? How could a blind man write all the words correctly? It was medically impossible. No amount of medical treatment can help with Retinitis Pigmentosa. There is no cure in medical science. It had to be God miraculously healing me through the intercession of Saint John Paul II. It cannot be explained any other way. I’m so grateful to God for restoring my sight. It is an act of true Divine Mercy. I am now able to use a keyboard for independent communication with speech, which is much faster. My Praying Mom Let me tell you about how I kept the faith. I had many times of doubts when I felt hopeless. It was only Jesus who kept me sane. I got my faith from my mother. Her faith is very strong. She inspired me to keep going when times were tough. Now I know our prayers are answered. It took me a while to get used to having my eyesight back. My brain/body disconnect was so great, and my brain was not wired to use vision in a functional way. It was fine for scanning, but it was difficult to get my brain to use information from my vision. For instance, although I could see, I still found it hard to identify what I was looking for. I got frustrated sometimes when I stumbled because I didn’t see where I was going even though I had a vision. In September, I went back to the hospital for testing. I got a 20:20 score for my sight and color vision, so my vision is normal now. However, the retinal photograph still shows degeneration. It hasn’t improved. According to medical science, it is impossible for me to see clearly. I should still be stuck in a murky, grey world. But God, in His mercy, has released me from that dull prison and plunged me into a beautiful world of color and light. The doctors are baffled. They are still baffled, but I rejoice because I can still see. Now, I can do many things much better than before. I can tell Mum things much faster now that I can use the laminated alphabet sheet. It is so much quicker than the stencil. I am so grateful to my talented Mum for persisting with my education despite the difficulties and for praying so faithfully for my healing. In the Gospels, we hear about Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people, just as he had restored mine. In these modern times, many people have forgotten about miracles. They scoff and think that science has all the answers. God is left out of their considerations. When a miracle like my healing occurs, He is revealing that He is still very much alive and powerful. I hope that my story of healing will inspire you to open your heart to the God who loves you so much. The Father of Mercy awaits your response.
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