A few years ago someone, as a practical joke I am sure, gave me a trial subscription to Vanity Fair. Along with all of the fashion photos of beautiful professional models, the magazine would include on the gossip pages photos of East Coast dowagers, aging heiresses, Left Coast faded movie stars and various Hollywood relics of the movie industry. The contrast between the photos of the beautiful professional models and the photos of the older women who had sought to preserve whatever natural beauty God gave them in their youth through injections of Botox and plastic surgery was nothing short of startling. Given the lifestyle that some of them had lived, it was obvious that the wages of sin could not be covered up by the skills of plastic surgeons. Remembering how some of them looked when they were younger I could not help but be reminded of The Portrait of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.
The truth is that inner beauty is what counts in the long run, not physical beauty since it is subject to radical change by accident or disease. Of course inner beauty can be lost through sin, but, unlike physical beauty, it can be restored by God’s Grace. The Church’s artists have, like today’s plastic surgeons, idealized the feature of the saints in the paintings, stained glass and statues they have created for the edification of the faithful. But one must read the lives of the saints to see the inner beauty which inspired so many artists to take artistic liberties with reality. I can think of no saint of whom this would be more true than Saint Damiaan De Veuster (Damien of Molokai). Photos of him are difficult to look at since they show the terrible ravages of the disease of leprosy. Yet, the man, the saint, was a beautiful human being whose love of God and love of the people entrusted to his pastoral care should inspire everyone to imitate him. I count myself as one who has drawn inspiration from the heroic life of Saint Damien and who was fortunate enough to have been able to make a pilgrimage to his grave in Belgium and through prayer seek his intercession.
Here are a few thoughts of Father George W. Rutler on Saint Damien’s recent cannonization:
Last Sunday, Pope Benedict raised to the altars five new saints: Zygmunt Szczesny Felin’ski (1822-1895), arch-bishop of Warsaw; Francisco Coll y Guitard (1812-1875), a Dominican priest; Jozef Damiaan De Veuster, (1840-1889), priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary; Rafael Arnáiz Barón (1911-1938), a Trappist religious; and Marie de la Croix (Jeanne) Jugan (1792-1879), founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Jeanne Jugan’s homes for the infirm elderly are now in 32 countries, and some of their selfless work is in our own archdiocese. A statue of Saint Damien represents the state of Hawaii in the United States Capitol building. Word of his heroic labors among the lepers on Molokai quickly spread after his death. Theodore Roosevelt instructed the sixteen battleships of the Great White Fleet to dip their flags as they passed Damien’s grave. In 1934, Roosevelt’s fifth cousin Franklin sent a U.S. naval vessel to transport the body to its native Belgium, where it was received by the King, the Cardinal-Archbishop, and 100,000 people who hailed Father Damien as “De Grootste Belge” – the Greatest Belgian. One day at Mass, Father Damien spoke to his outcast congregation as “we,” for he had contracted the disease himself. Now known as Hansen’s Disease, leprosy can be treated with drugs first developed in the 1940s. There still are about 2.5 million Hansen’s patients in the world. About 75 lepers could be cured for the average cost of one cosmetic “face lift” in New York City.
When Jesus told a young man, perhaps the same age as Damien when he arrived in Hawaii, to get rid of everything that blocked God, “his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 10: 22). Christ the Saviour is not a cosmetic surgeon. At the Mass, he does not say, “Lift up your faces,” for he bids the people: “Sursum Corda” – “Lift up your hearts.” St. Damien’s face was most beautiful when it became disfigured like the Messiah’s: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid our faces from him….” (Isaiah 53:3).
Among Father Damien’s despisers was a wealthy Presbyterian missionary in Honolulu, the Rev. Dr. Hyde who, in a letter in 1890 to another missionary, the Rev. H.B. Gage, wrote that the Catholic priest was dirty, headstrong, bigoted, and promiscuous. Robert Louis Stevenson, himself a fair-minded Scots Presbyterian, had visited the leper colony. Upon reading the attack on Father Damien, he published a scorching reply to Dr. Hyde, which included the words: “For if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H.B. Gage.” In St. Peter’s Square, 119 years later, that prediction was fulfilled.
Father George W. Rutler, 18 October 09