Father Damien of Molokai and the Holy Face

It is a little-known fact that Father Damien labored to established perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament among his lepers.

 Father Damien, taken in 1889, weeks before his death
Father Damien, taken in 1889, weeks before his death (photo: Photo by William Brigham)

There’s a beautiful little scene in the film about St. Damien of Molokai. The saint has volunteered to be the one priest to serve the lepers on the island colony of Molokai.

Knowing that he is likely to contract the disease, Father Damien sails to the island and enters the village. He finds the lepers are abandoned, depressed, alcoholic and fighting among themselves. Then he goes into the tiny church only to find that it is a wreck.

The furniture is broken. The windows are shattered. The altar cloths are filthy and the candlesticks and sacred vessels bent, tarnished and desecrated. The tabernacle is empty.

Then, without a word, the first thing he does is put the chapel to rights. He fixes the furniture, sets up the altar, cleans the floor and gets the people of the colony to help him repair the church.

What a lesson for our times! The priest’s priority was not first the pastoral care of the lepers. He did not look first even to their physical welfare — feeding them and tending their wounds and building their community.

The first thing he did was repair Christ’s church and celebrate Mass. There are two commandments: the first is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Both are indispensable, but there is a priority. We put the worship of Almighty God first.

We do so because that then empowers our love of the neighbor. Without loving God first, love of neighbor is no more than human kindness and good works. By loving God first we immediately understand all the other priorities in life. By loving God first and drawing others to love God first we also establish blessed unity. 

When we are all looking in the same direction we are all united. When we are all gazing at him we are not gazing at one another and most of all we are not gazing at ourselves.

Earlier this month we remembered Thérèse of Lisieux, and it is worth remembering that her name was not only “Thérèse of the Child Jesus.” It was “Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.”

It is a little-known fact that Father Damien labored to established perpetual adoration of the Eucharist among his lepers. In perpetual adoration we gaze on the face of the Redeemer under the appearance of bread. If we have eyes to see, we gaze on the Holy Face.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, in her final illness, kept an image of the Holy Face pinned to her bed curtains. The face of the crucified was ever before her.

There is something astonishingly beautiful in the thought that St. Damien — so far away in the Hawaiian Islands — was united with St. Thérèse in the perpetual adoration of the Holy Face. He died the year after she entered the Carmelite convent. With such a passion for the missions, if Thérèse had known Father Damien, he would certainly have been one of her “missionary priests.”

It is all the more moving to realize that Father Damien called the lepers — whose faces were so disfigured by disease — to adore the beautiful face of the suffering Christ in the Eucharistic host. Damien’s own face would eventually crumble under the curse of the terrible infection, and he joined his outcasts adoring day and night the Suffering Servant who himself was disfigured in his Passion. They gazed on the one who became, “as one from whom men screen their faces” (Isaiah 53:3). The one on whose face they spat and struck with their fists (Matthew 26:67) He was “Lord of Glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) whose face reveals “all the beauty of holy souls” (Litany of the Holy Face).