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(RNS) When Pope Benedict XVI proclaims Blessed Damien de Veuster a saint on Sunday (Oct. 11), among the 40,000 expected attendees at the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square will be the King and Queen of Belgium and a White House delegation including Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Diaz and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.
Yet no one’s presence there will give greater honor to the man known as “Father Damien,” one of five new saints to be canonized by Benedict, than 11 elderly men and women from the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
All victims of Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, they are among the last residents of a former leper colony on Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula, where Damien cared for the afflicted for more than 15 years in the late 19th century.
“If you had the disease you were sent there,” said Patrick Downes, editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald. “The place was barren and isolated. It would be hard for anyone to live there.”
Working without the help or company of other missionaries, the Belgian-born priest built houses, churches, hospitals and orphanages, dressed ulcers, and even built coffins and dug graves. After 11 years of living among his patients, he developed the first symptoms of their disease, but kept working until leprosy took his life in 1889.
Pope John Paul II proclaimed Damien the “apostle of the lepers,” and called him a “shining example of how the love of God does not take us away from the world. Far from it: the love of Christ makes us love our brothers and sisters even to the point of giving up our lives for them.”
Because of his association with victims of a once-incurable disease that carried a powerful social stigma, Damien has also been unofficially adopted as the patron saint of those with HIV/AIDS.
“Damien is an image for all the marginalized, for all those without a voice or influence,” said the Rev. Alfred Bell, the postulator (official advocate) for Damien’s canonization.
The missionary shared not only in the lepers’ physical suffering and isolation but in their social ostracism as well. Enemies spread rumors that Damien’s leprosy had been sexually transmitted, in violation of his vow of celibacy. The consequent damage to his reputation, Bell said, is one reason it has taken so long for Damien to be canonized.
John Paul declared Damien “Blessed” in 1995, having deemed as miraculous the cure of a French nun who had prayed to the priest only a few years after his death. A second miracle, occurring after beatification, was required for his canonization as a saint.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI recognized as miraculous a Hawaiian woman’s recovery from lung cancer after she prayed for Damien’s intercession. The case was the subject of an article in the Hawaii Medical Journal in 2000.
The recovered cancer patient, 81-year-old retired school teacher Audrey Toguchi, is one of some 650 Hawaiians who will be attending Sunday’s canonization.
Last Sunday, Toguchi joined about 350 others from her state to watch the unveiling of a bust of Damien, sculpted to emphasize the ravages of leprosy, in Damien’s hometown of Tremelo, Belgium.
At the unveiling, the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard W. Gutman said “even from his days as a little boy” in Hawaii, President Obama “learned of the feats of Father Damien and… has long admired and been inspired by him.”
Damien is considered the patron saint of Hawaii, and statues of him stand in both the U.S. Capitol in Washington and the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu.
Church officials celebrate Damien’s service to the sick, yet stress that his missionary work was dedicated above all to saving souls.
Part of Damien’s service on Molokai, notes an official Vatican document prepared for his canonization, was reforming the morals of the lepers, whom desperation had driven to “seek refuge in all the artificial paradises of vice,” and whose colony was blighted by “indolence, filth, violence.”
According to the Vatican document, Damien also preached against the practice of “idolatry” by native Hawaiians.
Damien’s emphasis on spreading the gospel makes him a model for missionaries today, said Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers.
“The social element is not enough, just as it was not enough for Damien,” Zimowski said. “Missionaries should never forget that they are sent first of all to evangelize, and in their evangelization they help man in all his dimensions, including the earthly.”
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA and ANGELA ABBAMONTE
(Francis X. Rocca reported from Vatican City; Angela Abbamonte reported from Washington.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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