The Opposite of Social Distancing

Jozef De Veuster was a Belgian Catholic who asked God to be sent on a mission.

Having done his formation for the priesthood in Belgium, he was then sent to Honolulu and was ordained two months later.

He took the name Damien and began his priestly ministry in the Hawaiian Islands.

During Fr. Damien’s time, there was a public health crisis. Mortality rates were high due to infectious diseases for which there was no herd immunity. Chinese workers were suspected of having brought the disease to the islands. The outbreak was not well understood and experts were unsure as to how it spread, whether it could be cured, and whether transmission could be stopped. The government passed mandatory quarantine legislation, even sending some people to isolate in remote locations. The officials insisted that these were not prisons, but there was certainly not enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses. Some experts thought the lepers would be better off dead. One health official conjectured, “It would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”

Eventually the bishop of the area realized the urgency of meeting the spiritual and material needs of those in isolation and decided to attend to it, despite the great risk.

After prayerful consideration, Father Damien was the first volunteer to take up residence among several hundred people living with leprosy at an isolated settlement.

Fr. Damien was warned to keep his social distance. He was warned to avoid touching them and eating with them.

But, as Brandon Vogt writes in this great piece:

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 didn’t want to serve them from afar; he wanted to become one of them. […] 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. 

Eventually Fr. Damien contracted leprosy. He continued to serve the community faithfully until his death on this date 132 years ago.

In 2009, Fr. Damien was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. During the homily, the pope said:

In order to follow Christ, Fr. Damien not only left his homeland but also risked his health: therefore as the word of Jesus proclaimed to us in today’s Gospel says he received eternal life (cf. Mk 10: 30). […] Let us remember before this noble figure that it is charity which makes unity, brings it forth and makes it desirable. Following in St Paul’s footsteps, St. Damien prompts us to choose the good warfare (cf. 1 Tim 1: 18), not the kind that brings division but the kind that gathers people together. He invites us to open our eyes to the forms of leprosy that disfigure the humanity of our brethren and still today call for the charity of our presence as servants, beyond that of our generosity.

We might ponder whether, 132 years from now, the world might still know the story of ‘a Fr. Damien’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, having never heard of the legislators or experts who were in power at the time.

St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us.

Photo: A tapestry showing St. Damien de Veuster hangs from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 2009. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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