Damien of the lepers

damienWhen Joseph was a boy, he had a dream.

He wanted to become a priest.

Even better, Joseph had someone to share his dream with – his brother. The two of them decided to do something incredible with their lives. As young men do, they dreamed big. Not only would they be priests, they’d be missionaries. And since they were brothers, they’d follow two holy brothers to give them inspiration – the sainted twins Cosmos and Damian.

Things went well for the duo at first. Both eventually began studying for the priesthood. Soon Joseph’s older brother was ordained. But things didn’t go so well for Joseph. He had a problem with Latin, and you know what that means. The superiors of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary didn’t feel he had the proper education to become a priest. So, Joseph watched his brother become a missionary priest, while he was left behind.

But God still had a plan for Joseph.

He became a brother, taking the name Damien. Everyday he prayed before a picture of St. Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries, to be sent on a mission. His brother was assigned to the Hawaiian Islands as a missionary, but became ill. Damien, even though he had not yet been ordained, stepped out in faith and asked to replace his brother.

When he received permission, Damien set off for the islands. What greeted him was certainly a lush and beautiful site, extraordinarily exotic to the young Belgian. But Damien was a missionary, not a tourist. After spending nine years in Honolulu, he felt called to request a perilous assignment. He wanted to go to Molokai, the Island of Lepers.

He must’ve been crazy.

Why would he do such a thing? What man in his right mind would ask to be sent to such a horrible place, a place filled with suffering, hopeless people – people who have nothing to offer but a highly contagious horrific disease????

Why?

Damien sought to bring hope. He had the peace that no man can give, the peace that no man can explain – the peace that comes from a relationship with Jesus. Eager to share that with those who suffered, he willingly gave his life to the people of Molokai.

Damien was instructed to not touch the lepers. This request he did not obey. He was told to keep his distance. He couldn’t follow that advice either. He touched the lepers, dressing their wounds. He embraced them, bringing them close to his heart.

You know by now that of course Damien became a leper. Eventually he died there on Molokai with his people, and was buried with two thousand other lepers near St. Philomena’s Church.

Throughout his life, Damien sought to follow the will of God, and to serve his neighbor. Last Sunday, he was canonized a saint.FatherDamien

The PIME Missionaries join the international Catholic community in celebrating the canonization of missionary priest Damien De Veuster. Inspired by his example, may we do the impossible, the outrageous, the unbelievable thing for God.

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just another existential crisis…

Martha or Mary?

Martha or Mary?

Who am I?

What am I doing here? Should I be working here, or somewhere else – or not at all? Have I understood God correctly? Is this His will for me?

They’re questions asked by many. (Not just bloggers with writer’s block who are debating if they should have just stayed in bed this morning rather than get paid to stare blankly at a keyboard all day, and then proceed to write run-on sentences. But I digress.)

No, all thinking folks want to know what in the world they should be doing with their lives. Believers have the added obligation of considering what God wants for them. Is the way we are living pleasing to him – or is he calling us to something else?

Men and women considering the priesthood or religious life call this process “discernment.” It’s not as if the ordained simply wake up one morning and decide to make the leap. It might take months or perhaps years of praying over the possibilities, evaluating options, and considering their gifts and talents. And even then an act of faith is required – a decision must be made. God really isn’t in the habit of sending down lightning bolts or setting bushes on fire for our benefit.

Those of us who choose marriage should remember that such a life is a vocation, too. Few of us think about being “called” to married life – even though this is certainly the most common state in life. And once we’ve entered married life, and settled into its patterns, are we done asking God what he wants from us?

Hardly.

So where does that leave us? Just sitting here waiting on God to tell us what to do with our lives?

While we’re waiting for that message from above, we’ll need to make at least one choice on our own: will we do something or not? Will we move or sit still?

Many of us are “do-ers”, and we’ll be eager to get started even if we’re not sure where we’re headed. We’re Marthas, if you will, always eager to serve God by bustling around. We figure God will let us know what he wants from us in time, and if we keep busy while we’re waiting, we’ll have lots of options he can pick from. If we’re always moving, God can shove us in the right direction, right?

On the other side we have the contemplative types, the Marys. Marys tend to tackle discernment from another angle – a more spiritual one. They sit at the Lord’s feet rather than running back and forth to the kitchen. They know that he will provide the answers they need if they wait on him in a different sense.

Is one approach superior?

Truthfully, they go hand in hand.

If you’re wondering what God is calling you to do, you need to do both: work and pray. “Ora et labora” is a motto we could all live by. Search out information. Try lots of activities. Explore your options. But keep it all real with a healthy dose of contemplation and prayer.

We’re pretty excited here at the PIME HQ to announce that we have a new staff member on board who will be involved in vocations, outreach, and mission trip planning. Have a question about vocations with the PIME Missionaries? Email Giovanni at outreach@pimeusa.org.

success or failure? you decide

Papua-New-Guinea-NativeJohn stood on the deck of the small merchant ship and looked out across the waters. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of the coast of the tiny island. He squinted, shielding his eyes from the bright September sun. He strained to see some sign of the friends he had left behind here, for this was not his first visit.

He was only 29, but he had traveled extensively throughout the Pacific Seas. He had spent months here on this remote island, living and working, praying and suffering. He was so anxious to return, saying that his very heart had been left behind there.

That morning in 1855 John thought he had nothing – yet everything -to lose by returning to Woodlark. When he saw the grass roofs of the natives’ huts, he prayed for a glimpse of his brother priests. Instead he saw only a group of men paddling toward the Gazelle in canoes.

In moments they were onboard. Avicoar, their leader, pushed aside the crew, moving swiftly toward John. He looked intently into the young priest’s eyes, and for a moment John hoped for the grace of reconcilation.

Instead, he was met with a blow. The sharp blade of Avicoar’s ax split open John’s head, and he was dead.

It was over. Fr. John Mazzucconi, PIME’s first martyr, had come to the islands with hope – hope that he could offer the gift of the Gospel, and that that gift would be received. Instead, he was met with sickness, suffering, and violence. He died at the hands of those he had given his life to serve.

Stories like this are hard to take – even for people of faith. Blessed John Mazzucconi died for his faith. He died for his missionary calling. And how many souls were saved as a direct result of his sacrifice?

At first glance, we’d have to say none.

That’s right, none. Zero. According to Fr. Nicholas Maestrini’s biography of Mazzucconi (Mazzucconi of Woodlark: Priest and Martyr) Fr. John and his companions saw no real change in the people of the island. The did not seem to even hear the message that he was willing to die for.

So was his life a failure? Was his mission work a waste of time?

This morning I came across a book about the islands of Papua New Guinea, where the island of Woodlark is located. As I glanced at the vivid photographs, snug in my safe midwestern office, far from the wild lands of mission fields, I was shocked. The images showed a land and people who looked nothing like my own. I know they are God’s children, as I am, but in my ignorance of their culture and customs I felt frightened by them.

I imagined the courage it took for young John to travel to those islands so many years ago. He couldn’t imagine the culture he was about to confront. He had no idea how strange their customs would be, how bizarre their beliefs compared to his own.

He had no book of photographs to prepare him like I did. He couldn’t just google “remote island in the Pacific” and find out what was in store for him.

When I saw these photographs this morning, I thought about the absolutely amazing qualities missionaries – in John’s day and today – must possess.

Today’s missionaries might know more about the lands they’ll visit and the people they serve. (In fact, the PIME Missionaries spend a great deal of time preparing their missionaries to adapt to the places they’ll visit.) However, they still need courage, and passion, and a sense of adventure to set out for those lands.

They also need a tremendous sense of trust. They must trust that God is the one at work in the hearts of all people. They must trust that even if they don’t see the results of their labors immediately, or even in their lifetime, God is using them powerfully.

John knew that. He knew his life had meaning and purpose.

He trusted God for the success of his mission. And God is in the business of providing for those who trust in him.

The PIME Missionaries left Woodlark, with no visible success, in 1855. They did not return until 1981; they maintain a presence there today. On the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, there are about 40.000 people. The majority of them are Christians.