St. Damien, Mr. Stevenson, & Rev. Hyde

Damien StatuePreparing to preach yesterday on the Feast of St. Damien of Molokai, I found one of those historical incidences that appealed so much to my various sensibilities that I just had to share it.

 

It seems that not long after Father Damien’s death, a certain Protestant clergyman in Hawaii, named (interestingly, as you’ll see) Hyde, set out to describe Damien to a colleague, and his comments were made public.  He wrote:

 

“In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to

Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”

 

This letter received a rather strong and lengthy response by the author Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde fame) in the form of an open letter.  It’s an often harsh, but also quite inspiring response in defense of the saint, calling the clergymen out for his jealousy (worth reading the whole of):

 

“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 forever.

One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away. Common honour; not the honour of having done anything right, but the honour of not having done aught conspicuously foul; the honour of the inert: that was what remained to you. We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen compete for the favour of a lady, and the one succeeds and the other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging to the successful rival’s credit reaches the ear of the defeated, it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the circumstance, almost necessarily closed.

Your Church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence . . .”

 

Stevenson basically says what can be said of many—if not most—saints: He may not have been perfect, but he served more faithfully and lived more heroically than most of us.  Reason for silence indeed.

(Above photo is of the statue of Damien which stands in the U.S. National Statuary Hall)

Advertisements

One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

Seeking What’s Next

For the last three years, including last weekend, August 3-5, I’ve had the privilege of helping lead a young adult Charis retreat weekend called “What’s Next?: Finding Answers With Faith” at the Jesuits’ Ignatius House Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA.  This year, I put my admittedly amateur video skills to work in order to make a “highlight reel” of the weekend.  If you want to get a sense of what some young adults are looking for, and what our retreat was like, have a look at our video!:

A Jesuit’s Path to Priesthood

The U.S. Jesuits have kicked off a video series, following one Jesuit on his “Path to Priesthood.”

Jesuit deacon Radmar Jao shares about his vocation, his past life as an actor and his thoughts as he anticipates his ordination as a priest this June.  Check it out, and stay tuned for further updates as the day approaches!:

Remember My Voice

The Saturday night mass at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress was the end of the congress for me, since I had to fly home the next day.  And, at the end, I found myself very moved and even teary-eyed.  This had nothing to do with the fact that it was the end, or even the quality of the liturgy (which was very good), but with the man sitting behind me.

It had been a busy day in a tiring weekend.  Earlier, I’d taken the tab out of the collar of my clerical shirt, and had even found someplace to catch a brief nap.  So, I was sporting the casual, open-collar priest look.  When it came time for the sign of peace, I turned to my friends sitting next to me, and then to those behind me.  I had heard  the groanings of attempts at speech earlier in the mass, and had wondered at their source.  And here he was, a large, somewhat disheveled man who, upon seeing me turn to him, appeared very distressed.  He tried to speak, but what came out was only nonsense, and he kept pointing to his collar.  I quickly realized that the source of his distress seemed to be my open collar.  Clearly, he recognized that I was a priest who was missing something.  I tried to reassure him, even talk to him, but I could not bridge the communication gap.  Eventually, he pulled a collar tab out of his own pocket and I, as if to reassure him, took mine out of my pocket and showed it to him, but he still seemed agitated.  I looked to the people on either side of him, thinking that one of them might be a caretaker, but he seemed to be alone.

I turned back to the mass and began to wonder: Was this man a priest?  Was that what he was trying to say?  I, too, am a priest.  Or was it that I was somehow not living up to expectations by having removed my collar?  I began to think that he was a priest, though I could not be sure.  But in imagining that he was a priest, I began to consider what it might be like to be a priest without a voice.  Attending this joyous liturgy, and even mouthing some of the words of the mass to myself while doing so, I started to consider what it might be like if my voice were suddenly taken away.  What a privilege it is to “say” the mass, and what grief it would cause if that were taken way.  And suddenly I realized in a quite overwhelming way that surely there are hundreds if not thousands of priests who because of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or some other illness are no longer able to speak, or to do so intelligibly.  And like the man behind me, perhaps a priest, they heroically press on, attending mass burdened with the sadness of not being able to say it, and perhaps seeing other priests like myself who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege enough.

I restored my collar, out of deference to this man—priest or not—who seemed to be concerned (some thought it was because I was about to receive communion from Cardinal Mahony, but I must admit that this thought hadn’t even occurred to me).  I found myself being even more deeply moved by this man’s plight, whether real or imagined, as I received communion, and took time to reflect afterwards.  I determined that I would ask the man, and hopefully be able to discover whether he was indeed a priest.  And, if so, I  decided, Iwould ask for his blessing.  I found myself verging on tears as I reflected on this, and continued to enjoy the splendor and music of the Eucharist we celebrated.  I found myself wanting to reach out to this man, to know who he was, to somehow get past his broken voice and find a connection.  Mass ended, I turned, and he was gone.  I’ll never know if he was, in fact, a priest, but he was to me that day in the truth of my imagination, and in the compassion which it inspired.

I was disappointed and further saddened by his absence, but I determined to remember him when once again my lips gave voice to the mass, a voice that he helped me to appreciate, that I might lose one day too.

Rough Hands

This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast.  It was a wonderful celebration.  The church was packed.  One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed).  Everyone was well-dressed.  At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods.  Then came the offering of the bread and the wine.  Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.

There were many things to remember that evening.  I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came.  I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself.  But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected.  Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.

It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church.  As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited.  One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello.  For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of.  I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands.  These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs.  And their hands speak that.

You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”  Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment.  There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices.  Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor.  Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth.  I take no pride in that fact.  I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor.  It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it.  But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.

Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading.  How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work.  I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough.  As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that.  As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.

At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night.  At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means.  This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things.  What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other.  And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process.  In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine.  So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.

Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables.  What does that say about us and our prayer?  Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will?  There is no Eucharist without bread.  There is no Eucharist without rough hands.