May 10th is the Feast day of St. Damien of Molokai and like all the saints he truly understood the deep meaning of today’s Feast of the Ascension. Damien was born in 1840 and was the son of a Belgian farmer. He and his brother Pamphile joined the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. These missionaries were responsible for bringing the Catholic faith to the Hawaiian Islands.
Damien was liked by everyone; he was generous, good-natured, and joyful. In 1864 more missionaries were needed in Hawaii so a group of priests and brothers were chosen to go, Damien’s brother Pamphile was among the group chosen. Just before the departure, however, Pamphile came down with typhoid fever. He couldn’t go to Hawaii. Damien still a seminarian, offered to take his place. The voyage from Belgium to Hawaii lasted 18 weeks, and during the trip Damien finished his studies for the priesthood and as soon as he landed in Hawaii he was ordained.
Damien spent the next nine years among the people of Hawaii, visiting all the remote regions of the islands either by canoe or on horseback. The people loved him; and with their help he built many chapels across the islands. After nine years of priestly service the Bishop asked for a volunteer priest to go to the island of Molokai. This island was known as the “living graveyard.” People went there when they were diagnosed with leprosy. They never left; it’s where they eventually died. Conditions were terrible; huts were ramshackle with muddy floors. No fresh water and the food given to them was usually rotten and always in short supply. And doctors rarely visited; if they did they only poked at the people with their canes. They rarely received the medical care they needed.
Father Damien volunteered to serve the lepers of Molokai. Once there, like the lepers, he never left. He treated the people with love and respect he wasn’t afraid to eat with them or to embrace them. He cleaned their wounds and changed bandages. He was not afraid to anoint them or to place the Sacred Host into their decaying mouths. Father Damien worked hard, he built new houses, piped in fresh water, got doctors to come to the Island, got medical supplies and good food for them to eat. He built a church, a hospital, and a school for the children. He even invited an order of sisters to come and teach the kids, and operate the hospital. Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy and after 18 years of service to the people of Molokai he died. At the time of his death the Island was a transformed place. It was an oasis for the sick. St. Damien was canonized in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
As I said at the beginning St. Damien understood the deep meaning of today’s Feast of the Ascension. This feast reminds us of our special dignity; Jesus ascended not only in spirit but in Body as well; His human body ascended to Heaven. Showing us that human life is headed somewhere, it’s headed to God. Where He goes we follow. Now many times when we think or speak of the Ascension of Jesus we also call to mind the Assumption of Mary. When she too was taken into Heaven body and soul.
Now the Church right from the very beginning has taught that Mary was assumed into Heaven without decay. But it wasn’t until 1950 that the Assumption was formally defined as a Dogma of the Church.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII saw that it was necessary to remind the world of the dignity, and the greatness, and the ultimate destiny of the human person. The world had just emerged from the trauma of Auschwitz, of Stalin’s purges, of death marches, and of so many other atheistic degradations of the human person that the Pope, together with the bishops from around the world, prayerfully concluded that it was a fitting time to make more formal something the Church had always believed. In calling for a universal feast to celebrate Mary’s bodily Assumption, the Church wanted to remind the world that the ultimate destiny for each and every one of us is not a gas chamber, or a prison camp, or destruction of any kind. The end for which we were made is to share in communion with God, and not just in spirit, but in body as well. We are marvelously made. And that’s how God sees each and every one of us, and that’s how we are to see one another. Just as St. Damien did on Molokai.
In our second reading St. Paul prays that the Ephesians receive a spirit of wisdom a wisdom that will enable them to see reality as it truly is and to live and make decisions according to reality. That prayer is for us as well. And on Ascension Sunday we are reminded of this reality: the human person, every human person, from the first moment of conception, is not only made in the image and likeness of God but is destined to return to God, not just in spirit but in body as well, to live in God’s own life in perfect happiness forever. Where Jesus and Mary have gone; we will one day follow. That is the reality of both the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary. And because of this realty, we understand that there are no mere mortals. We are called to share in the divinity of God. And because of this realty we understand not only the significance but also the true greatness of every single human person, no matter how small they are or how different from us they appear. Thinking in accord with reality we understand the reasons why it’s against human dignity to kill children in the womb, to turn away the immigrant, to exploit men and women in pornography, to use human embryos as spare parts, or to walk in an unfeeling manner past someone in need.
Pope St. John Paul II once wrote to a friend saying, “The degradation and the pulverization of the dignity of every human person is the fundamental crisis of our age; it lies at the root of every horror.” He goes on to say that, “You can only really know and learn about something by knowing the end for which it was made, by knowing its purpose, by knowing its destination. Today’s Feast teaches us the end and purpose of every human life: to be glorified in heaven! On this Feast of the Ascension let us ask God to give us a spirit of wisdom and courage so as to more and more understand the reality of human dignity, to live according to that reality, to boldly bear witness to it, and like St. Damien stand up for it in the world in which we live.
Let us become great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley