Aloha mai kakou,
There’s no doubt that being in Rome at this time is historic. Throngs of witnesses, celebrants, pilgrims, the simply devout and the simply vacationing now fill the streets, the steps, the restaurants. The masses fill the Masses.
Father Damien is but one of five being canonized tomorrow morning and we will be there. Our sidebar is full of information and observations about him and this weekend’s events.
But my friends ask if I’m Catholic. My family, who knows I’m not, wants to know why I’m here. Sister-from-Waialua didn’t ask, but quickly recognized that I didn’t know anything about the Book of Revelations when she attempted to engage me. Last Monday night, someone felt it important to point out to me examples of greed, lust and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, just in case I hadn’t heard.
First of all, my primary destination is Greece. Secondly, my travel dates were shaped by my need to be home for September meetings and the birthday of my favorite three-year-old, and the control of the airline that allowed me to bank enough miles to redeem them for a trip to Europe, but not Athens, and not less than three weeks. In addition, `Ahahui o na Kauka, the Association of Native Hawaiian Physicians, and one of the Hawaiian health organizations I serve, partnered with the Catholic Diocese to raise funds to send the residents of Kalaupapa to Belgium and Rome for these canonization activities, so the events were on my mind all summer.
Finally, while it is an opportunity to be enveloped by an exciting place in an exciting time, it is also an opportunity to see a man of great spirituality and selflessness be honored by the institution, the family, to which he devoted his life.
After all, I flew to Maui to see the Dalai Lama (in fact, I also spent that day with Kalei), a spiritual man. Why not participate in honoring Damien, a holy man who served Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka`i? Do not both men embody love, selflessness, the ability to overcome hardship, and deep faith in their respective Gods?
Damien arrived to Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula, where people, mostly Hawaiians, diagnosed with leprosy lived if they survived the swim in from where they were dumped from the ship into the ocean. He ministered to the sick, brought order to a camp created by exile and ruled without scruples, and created a thriving community. When presented the opportunity to be transferred, he demurred and continued to serve the people of Kalaupapa for more than 15 years, eventually contracting Hansen’s disease himself and dying far from his home country of Belgium.
(You can learn more about him with a few Google searches.)
My mother does not know of any members of our family who lived in Kalaupapa, but many others I know do have such stories. I have seen the massive cemeteries–Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, etc.–in Kalaupapa and Kalawao. There are so many, unknown, forgotten graves, forgotten family members. My daughter’s grandfather had a sister who fell in love with a man and she chose to live and die in Kalaupapa.
I would like to think that because of the influence of a man like Damien, that she was able to live there in safety, that she was assured of the well-being of her infant daughter when she the baby was sent out of the settlement to family.
Despite my lack of Catholic upbringing, it is Damien’s legacy of love and service that moves me to celebrate with others. It is the man, his compassion, and his actions that I honor this weekend.
And I dedicate this post to my grandfather, Alfred A.K. Achong, and all his family–up, down and laterally–who probably wish I were Catholic.
Kim Ku`ulei Birnie (c) naleialoha.net