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VATICAN LETTER Oct-2-2009 (780 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Sept. 30 and Oct. 2 and graphic posted Sept. 30. xxxi

Charity in action: Impact of new saints continues in United States

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The long path to official sainthood is drawing to a close in October for Blessed Damien de Veuster, a missionary priest famed for his work with leprosy patients in Hawaii.

Pope Benedict XVI is canonizing him Oct. 11 along with four others, including Blessed Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Both Blessed Damien and Blessed Jeanne are important figures for U.S. Catholics, and reflect the pope's priority on the faith as charity in action, especially toward society's outcasts and forgotten.

Neither was born in the United States, but both continue to have a major impact there, and hundreds of U.S. pilgrims will be descending on Rome for the canonization liturgy in St. Peter's Square.

Blessed Damien, a Belgian-born member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is renowned for having spent the last 16 years of his life ministering to patients with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, on the island of Molokai in Hawaii. At that time, in the mid-19th century, lepers were considered outcasts and leprosy was an incurable disease.

Blessed Jeanne grew up in revolutionary France and formed a small prayer community. In 1839, at the age of 47, she brought home a sick and blind elderly widow, giving the woman her own bed. Eventually, caring for the abandoned elderly became the primary focus of her religious order, and remains so today for the approximately 2,700 Little Sisters of the Poor.

The two new saints were models of personal holiness and self-sacrifice, and epitomize the church's long record of service in health care. But in their own day they were not necessarily known as heroes.

Blessed Damien sailed for Hawaii in 1864, was ordained a priest and served there for eight years. When a priest was needed for the leprosy settlement on the island of Molokai in 1873, he volunteered. He found himself essentially alone as pastor, doctor, adviser and guardian to the approximately 800 residents suffering from the disease.

His tough and practical methods antagonized many civil and religious authorities, who considered him headstrong and bothersome, but he undoubtedly left the patient inhabitants of the island better off. He organized the residents into a community, built a hospital, an orphanage and a church, helped the village get piped water and even started up a brass band.

After contracting the disease himself, he experimented on himself with new treatments. He was, as he wrote, "at one with the lepers." Following his death at the age of 49 five years later, centers were established in his name for patients with leprosy and, in more recent years, HIV and AIDS. Many hope he will be named the patron saint of those with HIV/AIDS and leprosy.

For Blessed Jeanne, recognition came long after her death -- even in her own religious order. At one point, she was replaced as superior of the Little Sisters and sent out to beg on behalf of the poor. She was later placed in retirement, and when she died in 1879 the younger members of her order didn't even know she was the foundress.

Today she is known as the patron of the elderly, and is seen by many as introducing a unique model of health care delivery that has particular relevance in modern times of costly end-of-life care. The Little Sisters serve more than 13,000 elderly residents in 202 homes in 32 countries.

Some of the people who continue to be touched by the lives of these 19th-century figures will be in Rome for the canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict. Although the treatment of Hansen's disease is much improved and no longer calls for the segregation of patients, it still afflicts several million people around the world.

Traveling with a group of 550 pilgrims from Hawaii will be a dozen residents from Kalaupapa -- about half of the settlement's remaining former Hansen's disease patients -- along with their caregivers and companions. The residents' 12,000-mile journey was paid through a fundraising campaign.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are coming to Rome in full force, about 4,000 sisters, patrons, staff members and a group of very special guests: at least one resident from each of their homes for the elderly. The order is arranging video transmission of the canonization Mass for many of the residents who can't make the trip.

Blessed Jeanne and Blessed Damien seem to embody a favorite theme of Pope Benedict: that Christianity is not merely a "moral code" or a set of rules, but a religion that embodies love of God and neighbor. Although their causes have been under study by church authorities for decades, they are very much saints of this pontificate.


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This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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