“Father Damien has also earned a special place in the hearts of Hawaiians. I recall many stories from my youth about his tireless work there to care for those suffering from leprosy who had been cast out. Following in the steps of Jesus’ ministry to the lepers, Father Damien challenged the stigmatizing effects of disease, giving voice to the voiceless and ultimately sacrificing his own life to bring dignity to so many.
“In our own time as millions around the world suffer from disease, especially the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, we should draw on the example of Father Damien’s resolve in answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick.”
These are the words of President Barack Obama in the Oct. 9 statement he released two days before Pope Benedict XVI canonized Father Damien de Veuster, the 19th-century Belgian priest who ministered to the leper colony on Molokai until he contracted the disease himself and died of it in 1889 at the age of 49.
In making his remarks, the president indicated he understands a central reason why the Church canonizes its saints. By calling attention to their heroic witness of Christian faith, hope and love, the Church desires that these saints will inspire Catholics and non-Catholics alike to follow in their footsteps of service to God and to other people.
Obama, as a man who spent much of his own childhood in Hawaii, knows that St. Damien’s example already has inspired many to serve the sick and the marginalized. And we think he’s entirely correct in suggesting that in many regions of today’s world, it is AIDS victims who — like the Hawaiian lepers in Father Damien’s time — have been cast aside to die without dignity and without the care and medical treatment they need so desperately.
This is especially true in some African countries. Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network, noted in a 2006 article published by La Civilta Cattolica that leprosy and some other diseases continue to be stigmatized by many Africans as illnesses that are “shameful and unclean.”
“HIV and AIDS, being both incurable and sexually transmitted, are particularly potent when it comes to propagating shame and stigma,” Father Czerny continued. “We know people who have tried to kill themselves before the disease does away with them. They suffer more from shame than from the sickness; they are more afraid of shame than of death; quite simply, they die of shame rather than of AIDS itself.”
So who are the St. Damiens of today, who are willing to live in sacrificial solidarity with contemporary AIDS “lepers” in order to minister to their physical and spiritual needs and to affirm their human dignity?
The Vatican estimates that worldwide the Catholic Church currently provides more than 25% of all care administered to those with HIV/AIDS. And in impoverished African countries, the proportion is far higher, in some cases nearing 100%, according to Father Czerny.
So, more often than not, Catholics are the ones who are responding to Obama’s “urgent call” to help marginalized and stigmatized AIDS victims. Catholics like Jesuit Father Angelo D’Agostino, the late American priest who founded Nyumbani Children’s Home in Kenya in 1992 to provide shelter for HIV-positive orphans. “AIDS orphans have never been fully accepted,” Father D’Agostino told Catholic Insight in 2005. “That is why I started Nyumbani Children’s Home. I wanted to make them feel part of humanity.”
Catholics like Kenyan pediatrician and author Dr. Margaret Ogola, the former executive secretary of the Commission for Health & Family Life of the Kenyan Bishops’ Conference, who serves as medical director of the Cottolengo Hospice for HIV/AIDS orphans.
Catholics like Sister Pudentiana Tibabyekomya, who returned to her native Tanzania in 2008 following several years of studies at Florida’s St. Leo University to open a new center to care for AIDS victims and other marginalized and traumatized individuals. Prior to coming to St. Leo, the 58-year-old sister of St. Thérèse of the Little Flower founded an orphanage in Burundi, another AIDS-ravaged African country.
These Catholics, and the countless others who join in helping AIDS victims, don’t seek publicity except when necessary to secure material resources for those they are assisting. And they don’t look down on AIDS victims either, or view them as mere statistics in an international public health crisis.
As Father Czerny said, “The Church does not approach the AIDS pandemic as a problem to be solved. Rather, she hears the voice of the Lord saying to us: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have life to the full’ (John 10:10). As Jesus always does, the Church calls his followers to selfless love and service, and thus to abundant life for everyone.”
This selfless service puts the lie to the calumny that’s leveled by proponents of condom distribution, who claim that by opposing condoms the Pope and other Church leaders are callously ignoring the interests of suffering Africans. Aside from the fact that it has been demonstrated by empirical research that condom distribution has been a total failure in preventing the spread of AIDS in Africa, it’s the Church that’s leading the way there in reaching out tangibly to help those afflicted. It’s certainly not the condom manufacturers or their allies in Western countries.
As Pope Benedict XVI said to reporters last March as he was flying to Africa, “The [AIDS] scourge can’t be resolved with the distribution of condoms: On the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship with those who suffer and the willingness — even with sacrifice and self-denial — to aid the suffering. These are factors that help and lead to visible progress.”
St. Damien would surely agree with the Pope about that.