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DAMIEN-POSTULATOR Sep-22-2009 (xxx words) xxxn

Canonization of Father Damien to end long journey for priest

By Rose Ybarra
Catholic News Service

EDINBURG, Texas (CNS) -- When Blessed Damien of Molokai is canonized Oct. 11 by Pope Benedict in St. Peter's Square, a Texas priest who played a major role in the long process will be there.

Father Emilio Vega Garcia, parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg, was the postulator for the cause of canonization of Blessed Damien for 10 years, from 1997 to 2007. The postulator is the primary promoter or lead investigator for a proposed saint's cause in Rome.

"If Father Emilio hadn't been here to help the process, who knows?" said Patrick Downes, editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the newspaper for the Diocese of Honolulu. "It may not have happened. Father Emilio was a major figure in the process."

Downes has reported extensively on Blessed Damien and has followed his journey to canonization for years.

Father Garcia, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and a native of Spain, takes a more humble approach on his role as postulator.

"It was part of my ministry," he said. "It was a great honor to present Father Damien's cause. He is not only a hero in Hawaii and his native Belgium but for all of humanity."

Blessed Damien of Molokai, a priest from Tremelo, Belgium, is lauded for his commitment to those afflicted with Hansen's disease or leprosy. He ministered to those who were banished to Kalaupapa, a settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, caring for them with love and compassion. He ultimately contracted Hansen's disease and died in 1889.

There were calls for Damien's sainthood almost immediately after his death but the road to sainthood is a long one.

After Damien was approved as candidate for sainthood, he was given the title "venerable" in 1977 by Pope Paul XI. He was beatified or declared blessed by Pope John Paul II in a ceremony on June 4, 1995, in Brussels, Belgium after he was credited with his first miracle, the spontaneous recovery of a French nun in 1895.

In order for the canonization process to continue, a second miracle had to be credited to Damien, and it was up to Father Garcia to gather the evidence and keep careful records.

He began his assignment as postulator in 1997, making several trips to Hawaii from Rome where he was living at the time, an 8,000-mile trip each way. Father Garcia pored through documents, conducted exhaustive interviews, knocked on doors and made phone calls to collect the facts.

He investigated the second miracle that led to Father Damien's upcoming canonization. A retired teacher made a spontaneous recovery from what was deemed terminal cancer. After Father Garcia submitted his report, the miracle was linked to her prayers to Damien and approved by Pope Benedict.

Once canonized, Damien will likely be the patron saint of those with HIV/AIDS and leprosy, which is still widespread in Brazil, Nepal, India and parts of Africa, according to the World Health Organization.

Father Garcia said while his ministry as postulator was amazing, it took a toll on his health. After 10 years on the project, he turned Father Damien's case over to Father Bruno Benati of Italy in 2007.

Father Benati died unexpectedly on June 17, 2008 and the final phase of the case was assigned to Father Alfred Bell, a German priest.

Father Garcia was to lead a pilgrimage to witness the canonization of Blessed Damien, with additional stops in Lourdes, France, and Barcelona, Spain.


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