Culture

A Saint on Capitol Hill

February 22, 2009

Multiple Pages

When one reads the new atheists, one gets the impression that the influence of Christianity has been entirely baleful, that Christianity’s contribution to morality has been entirely negative, and that the United States, far from being a Christian country historically, is really the finest flower of the anti-religious Enlightenment, and that we therefore ought to stamp out all public manifestations of Christianity, which will most likely wither away anyway as Americans become as sensible as contemporary Britons and Scandinavians.  These peculiar beliefs often find expression in lawsuits trying to suppress all public expressions of Christianity.  It is therefore with some hesitation that I point out that there will soon be a saint on Capitol Hill.  On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the great Flemish missionary to Hawaii, Father Damien of Molokai, one of two men representing that state in Statuary Hall, will be canonized on October 11.

By long custom, each state picks two historical figures to act as its permanent representatives on Capitol Hill, where they are commemorated by a statue.  The composition of this collection is one clue that the new atheists have greatly underestimated the impact Christianity has had on America from our earliest days.  Of course, virtually all the figures represented in Statuary Hall were practicing Christians.  Even more striking, a large number of them were clergymen.   In addition to the statue of Damien, visitors to Capitol Hill will find statues of such Protestant ministers as Roger Williams, John Peter Muhlenberg, Jason Lee, and Marcus Whitman, and such Catholic priests as Junipero Serra, Jacques Marquette, and Eusebio Kino, as well as Mother Joseph, a nun who was a missionary in Washington.  Lee, Whitman, Serra, Marquette, and Kino were also missionaries, meaning that a calling that is quite out of favor with the new atheists is particularly well represented in Statuary Hall.

That Damien was chosen to represent Hawaii on Capitol Hill is no surprise.  Although he worked in Hawaii before it became part of the United States, he has long been a hero to Hawaiians of all religious backgrounds.  In the mid 19th century, Hawaii saw a large outbreak of leprosy, and the Hawaiian authorities responded by creating a leper colony at Kalaupapa on remote Molokai.  Although this was not the intention of the Hawaiian government, the leper colony on Molokai soon became little more than a place people went to die, in isolation and poverty and a condition approaching anarchy.   When the Bishop of Honolulu asked for a volunteer to go to Molokai to minister to the lepers for a few months, Damien went, and stayed for the rest of his 16 years.  Damien cared for the lepers in every aspect of their being, cleansing their wounds and bandaging their sores, building coffins so they could have a decent burial (he built some 2,000 by hand), offering Mass and hearing their confessions, and attempting to model for them the love of Christ.  He also brought some much needed order, building a home for children and organizing a variety of activities that helped bring hope and purpose to the people exiled on Kalaupapa.  Damien identified completely with those in his care, referring to “we lepers” in his sermons long before he contracted leprosy himself.  Damien’s example attracted other volunteers and more advanced medical care, so that slowly Kalaupapa was transformed for the benefit of those who lived there.

Damien did have detractors, including Rev. Hyde, a Presbyterian clergyman in Honolulu who wrote to a colleague in Australia following Damien’s death dismissing him as a “coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted.”  After Hyde’s remarks were published by his colleague in Australia, Robert Louis Stevenson, who had visited both Hyde in his comfortable Honolulu home and Molokai after Damien’s death, and who was also a Presbyterian, wrote a masterful open letter refuting each of Hyde’s charges and defending the dead priest:  “But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour - the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat - some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away.”  Stevenson accurately predicted to Rev. Hyde that “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.”  Stevenson also precisely delineated the point that separated him from Hyde: “you are one of those who have an eye for faults and failures; that you take a pleasure to find and publish them; and that, having found them, you make haste to forget the overvailing virtues and the real success which had alone introduced them to your knowledge. It is a dangerous frame of mind.”  Indeed it is.  One wishes that Christopher Hitchens had pondered Stevenson’s words before he embarked on his journalistic jihad against Mother Teresa, who, like Damien, won the respect of the country in which she worked by caring for lepers.  One wishes the new atheists would ponder those words today, as they set about attempting to tear down what Christianity has contributed to our civilization.

In fact, it is clear that what motivated Damien to do what no one else was willing to do was his desire to emulate Christ.  The definitive biography of Damien is Gavan Daws’ Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai.  Daws describes Damien as “an ordinary man who made the most extraordinary moral choices again and again and again.”  When asked by a PBS interviewer about writing the book, Daws noted that he had come to believe that Damien was a saint, even though “I’m not a practicing Christian, and I’m by definition not a Catholic.”  But, Daws added, “look what he did. Time and time again, he does things that nobody else is prepared to do, at the risk of his physical life, in the interest of what he always called the imitation of Christ. That’s what he did.”  And that’s why all Americans can be glad that there soon will be a saint on Capitol Hill.

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