What if we could see suffering as a gift?
Leprosy – or what we now call Hansen’s disease – is one of the most dreaded diseases of all time. Before a cure was discovered, those who contracted the disease, no matter how young, were separately from their families and banished in places such as Molokai, which is one of Hawaii’s islands.
“There was no infrastructure. No buildings. No way to care for them. No religious presence. There was sexual abuse of the young and a lot of drunk and disorderly conduct. People figured, ‘We’re already here. What are you going to do to us?’”
The speaker is Jeremy Rivera, director and producer of the EWTN special, “Discovering Damien: Saint of Molokai.” (Airs 10 p.m. ET, Tuesday, May 10, his feast day, and 11 p.m. ET, Saturday, May 14.) You know him from his previous work with EWTN: “Seek: The Experience” and “You’re Amazing with Justin Fatica.”
“Molokai was like going to jail for a crime you didn’t commit,” Rivera continues. “What a beautiful prison it was; a paradise surrounded by 2,000 foot wall cliffs. There was one trail up. An armed guard was ordered to shoot anyone trying to escape.”
In this EWTN special, Rivera follows 20 young adults, led by Fr. Nathan Cromly, CSJ, on a pilgrimage to Hawaii and Molokai. These youth wished to walk in the footsteps of St. Damien in order to discover who he was.
Fr. Damien was born in Belgium on Jan. 3, 1840. He was ordained a priest in 1864 in Honolulu and served there for nine years. In 1873, he and three other priests volunteered to go to Molokai. The priests were supposed to rotate. Fr. Damien was selected to go first, but when he heard that the patients on Molokai had rejoiced at getting a “permanent priest,” he announced that he would not be returning to the big island of Hawaii.
If given this assignment, where would you begin? Fr. Damien wanted to restore his patients’ dignity and to increase their respect for one another so he started a Christian burial association. “People would die along the side of the road and no one would bury them,” Rivera said. “Fr. Damien thought if he could help people honor each other in their death, they would treat each other a little better in their life.”
Father Damien built churches, hospitals, and schools. He even started a band. He also ordered clothing for the boys and girls. Once a year, a boat would come and drop off needed supplies. But how could he afford this?
Rivera says money came in from everywhere thanks, in part, to a most unlikely source: the famous poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Stevenson came to Molokai for eight days and stayed with Fr. Damien taking no precautions. Stevenson would say the experience renewed his faith.
Rivera says Fr. Damien never had to ask for money; others did it for him. But while Fr. Damien was helping others, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, who was helping him?
Says Rivera: “Once or twice a year, the neighboring island priest would come in a boat. Fr. Damien would wade out into the water and shout his sins to the priest. The humility!”
So what do you think Fr. Damien thought of the life he had chosen? Says Rivera: “I said a little prayer to him before this interview. I asked what he would want me to say? I think he would have said, ‘I would never have thought of this on my own. I was just the vessel to introduce the rest of the world to these beautiful souls that everyone else had discarded.’ He wouldn’t want the attention on him as much as on being the door to these people who were suffering and dying of a terrible disease.”
Rivera said Robert Louis Stevenson’s visit completely transformed his vision of the lepers. Rivera recalls that St. Francis kissed a leper and that transformed him, and he remembers the example of Blessed Mother Teresa, who famously said, “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds. Yet I willingly care for him for the love of God.”
“It’s interesting how God can change our perspective and vision of suffering because these souls truly were beautiful!” Rivera said.
Father Damien contracted leprosy in 1885 and died Oct. 11, 1889. But Rivera says his is not a sad story.
Many directors hope their films will be motivational or inspirational. Rivera hopes “Discovering Damien” will be transformational.
“I want people to come away different. I want them to connect with their heart – and ask culturally relevant questions.”
As part of Rivera’s next project for EWTN, he will travel to Ireland to discover St. Patrick.
“St. Patrick faced atheism and paganism, much like we see today,” he said. “St. Damien, St. Patrick, and all the saints challenge us in our own day and age. They are really not that different. They speak to us.”
If only we will listen.