Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Honors of the Altar

The rites might've been moved inside at the last minute due to a short burst of rain, but even that couldn't dampen the joy and pride of some 40,000 pilgrims gathered earlier today in Rome as Pope Benedict canonized five new saints including Hawaii's "apostle of the lepers" Father Damien de Veuster, and the French apostle to the aged Mother Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The group rounded out by a Polish bishop and two Spaniards -- a Dominican-founder of a community of nuns and a Trappist mystic who died at 27 -- B16 hailed the newly-elevated for their heroism "in choosing to go against the trends of the time to live according to the Gospel":
"Not without fear and loathing - underlined the Pope - [Damien] made the choice to go on the island of Molokai in the service of lepers who were there, abandoned by all, so he exposed himself to the disease of which they suffered. With them he felt at home. The servant of the Word became a suffering servant, a leper with the lepers, during the last four years of his life. To follow Christ, Father Damien not only left his homeland, but has also staked his health so he - as the word of Jesus announced in today's Gospel tells us - received eternal life (cf Mk 10:30). "

His figure, the Pope added... "teaches us to choose the good fight (cf. 1 Tim 1, 18) -- not those that lead to division, but those that gather us together in unity."
The last figure is that of St. Mary of the Cross [Jugan] and her "wonderful work to help the most vulnerable elderly." Her charism, he added, "is still valid today, given that many elderly people suffer from multiple poverty and loneliness, sometimes even being abandoned by their families."

"I would like to invite everyone - concluded Benedict XVI – to allow themselves be attracted by the shining example of these saints, to be guided by their teachings so that our entire life becomes a hymn of praise to God's love."...

In his reflection before the [post-Mass Angelus, the Pope] returned to the value of the witness of the saints canonized today. He asked French-speaking pilgrims to follow the example of St. Jeanne Jugan, "to take care of the poorest and smallest" to support with prayer and work "the generous people involved in the fight against leprosy and all other forms of leprosy due to the lack of love, ignorance or meanness”....
Benedict XVI also recalled the figure of St. Damien for [Belgian] pilgrims: "This holy priest was led by God to allow his vocation flourish into a total 'yes'. May the intercession of Our Lady and the apostle of lepers free the world of leprosy, make us open to the love of God and give us joy and enthusiasm in service to our brothers and sisters."
For those who'd like to see it all, our friends at CatholicTV have on-demand video of the morning Mass up and streaming.

Meanwhile, the selfless work of Jugan's Little Sisters -- now serving the elderly poor in 202 homes across 32 countries -- has come into a much-merited focus amid the canonization clamor; among others, today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profiled the Sisters' Steel City home, and the Baltimore Sun talked with Jeanne's cheering section heading over from the Premier See. And not to be outdone, even the Grey Lady's gotten in on the buzz, with the New York Times devoting a lead editorial in its Sunday editions to Damien's foresight in cherishing the dignity of leprosy patients -- a task which, the paper says, still "has a long way to go" worldwide.

Just goes to prove what the Pope said: the good fight gathers together in unity.

Of course, the challenge -- indeed, the gift -- the saints present us in every age comes not from admiring them and little else, but to find in their lives and example the accessible inspiration to keep going where they once went and doing what they once did. In other words, it's not enough to say "they're great" -- the sign of the saint is to come away from their story thinking, "I can be great, too... I can do more."

Along these lines, it's worth recalling a reflection given the other day at St Damien's tomb by Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu, who focused on the island colony for Hansen's patients where the Belgian-born missionary lived and died....
"We all have our Kalaupapas," Silva told the congregation at Mass.

"We can be critical of those people who chose to isolate people in Kalaupapa. But we have our little ways of isolating. It doesn't take oceans or sea cliffs to isolate people....

"We pass by our brothers and sisters each day and say, 'It's not my problem. It's not my business. I don't have time.' So we don't bother tending to their needs."...

"[Damien] was a human being, not a parable character," Silva said. "That is what it is to be a saint, to be face to face with God."
And so, just as Jeanne Jugan exhorted her sisters to "never forget the poor are our Lord" -- just as, for Damien, God dwelt at Kalaupapa and relied on his help -- so we, too, can find Him, and serve Him, a lot closer by than we might sometimes admit.

We're called to nothing less, church, so let's get to it.

More extensive coverage from Honolulu's Advertiser and Star-Bulletin, and the Hawaii diocese's Catholic Herald.