By Susan Ciancio
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently stated that the presence of a statue of St. Damien of Molokai in the Hawaiian capitol building is indicative of what a “white supremacist culture looks like.”
Her ignorant and hurtful words, especially as a professed Catholic, cannot go unnoticed. Nor can we fail to address them with the truth.
St. Damien was born in Belgium in 1840 and joined the priesthood at the age of 19. Five years later, he was ordained a priest and began his ministry in Hawaii. For nearly 10 years, he traveled throughout the island teaching the word of God. When he heard that the people living in the leper colony on the island of Molokai were entrenched in a life of immorality and drunkenness, he felt called to minister to them. Knowing he would likely catch the disease and die there, St. Damien volunteered to go anyway. For 16 years, he lived among the lepers, helping them build houses, teaching them about Christ, loving them, and helping them understand that they still had dignity despite their illness.
If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.
St. Damien happened to be white, but he was also an immigrant. Regardless of his color, a statue depicting his likeness would probably still have been prominently displayed in Hawaii. Why? Because his actions warranted it. He made a difference in people’s lives. He cared for people no one wanted to even look at. He taught them about Christ. And he made them believe that, despite their awful illness, they still had value. Isn’t that something we should all strive to do?
We can learn so much from St. Damien, but here are five awesome ways we can use his example to be more saintlike:
1. St. Damien teaches us what a true hero is.
Many movie stars, sports figures, and pop singers are raised to the status of “hero,” but they don’t all possess hero-like qualities. A hero builds a culture of life by putting others before himself, by protecting others, and by being an example of Christ’s love.
How can we teach our children to use St. Damien’s example to build a culture of life in our own homes and communities? We can teach them how to stand up for their little brothers and sisters. We can teach them to stand up for someone who’s being bullied on the playground. We can teach them to stand up for their faith. These behaviors will make them feel strong, and when they feel strong, they will more likely be willing to continue their heroic actions.
2. St. Damien teaches us how to live the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.
St. Damien took care of the people in the leper colony, not just spiritually but physically as well. He helped them build houses, taught them how to use utensils, taught them to make their own clothes, and more, all while teaching them about Christ’s love for them.
Use his example to teach your children to build a culture of life by learning and living the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Help children identify which ones they can do on their own—such as pray for others, feed the hungry, or clothe the naked. Explain why it’s so important that we help take care of others the way that St. Damien did.
3. St. Damien teaches us to see Christ in others.
People were disgusted by the lepers; they were repulsed by their sores and wounds. But St. Damien didn’t see ugly lepers. He saw children of Christ.
How can you teach your children to see Christ in all people? You repeatedly talk about how Christ is in all of us. You live that belief, and you let your kids see your example. You expose them to many different kinds of people and have conversations about how all people are made in the image and likeness of God, regardless of how they look on the outside. When kids grow up looking for Christ in others, it will be much easier to find Him.
4. St. Damien teaches us to give of ourselves.
St. Damien literally gave his life to help others better their own lives and to save them spiritually. Most of us aren’t called to actually give our lives for others, but we can give of ourselves every day.
How do we teach our children to give of themselves? We can teach them to give their material possessions to others—to clean out their closets and to give gently used games and clothing to needy people. We can teach them to pray and fast for others. We can teach them the value of time and how giving their time and attention to a little sibling or a sad friend can make a huge difference in their lives. And we can teach them the inherent value of suffering—that when they suffer, they can offer it up for someone who is hurting or for a soul in Purgatory.
5. St. Damien teaches us to find strength in God.
There were times when St. Damien felt lonely, but he found solace in his faith. We can all do that.
We must work every day to increase and strengthen our faith. Explain to your children that we can always go to God, to Mary, and to the saints for strength. Teach them new prayers. Teach them how to search their hearts and talk to God. Create a prayer journal with your children and write when prayers are answered. Talk about how God answers prayers in ways we may not understand and that prayers are not always answered right away.
St. Damien is a true hero, and it is right that his statue should serve as a reminder to others of how he built a culture of life on the island of Molokai. These daily reminders of men and women of faith give us people to emulate and works to aspire to. But most of all, they plant the seeds that will help us grow as children of God.
The Culture of Life Studies Program has a beautiful lesson on St. Damien for 5th-6th graders. Everyone should know about the heroic life of this great saint, so you can adapt this lesson for both younger and older kids. Right now, use the code WILLIAM to get 20% off of this lesson. Visit our store for either the digital copy or the print copy.