Priest who lived with leprosy now a saint

Stephen James Johnson

From the Associated Press.

VATICAN CITY – A 19th-century priest whose courageous work with leprosy patients in Hawaii has been likened to the efforts of those battling the stigma of AIDS was elevated to sainthood Sunday by Pope Benedict XVI, along with four other Catholics he hailed as heroes of holiness.

Among the 10,000 pilgrims packing St. Peter’s Basilica was Hawaii resident Audrey Toguchi, an 80-year-old retired school teacher whose recovery from lung cancer a decade ago stunned her doctor and was ruled a miracle by the Vatican.

Toguchi has credited her survival to praying to Belgium-born Jozef De Veuster, also known as Father Damien, who himself died from leprosyin 1889 after contracting the disease while working with ostracized patients living on Molokai island.

Some 40,000 faithful who couldn’t fit inside the vast church filled St. Peter’s Square on a warm, sunny morning. Many women from Hawaii wore headpieces made of roses and large beaded necklaces over floral-print loose gowns.

Among the five Benedict added to the church’s roll call of saints is French nun Jeanne Jugan, who helped the elderly, including some abandoned by their families. Jugan, also known as Marie de la Croix, was “an authentic Mother Teresa ahead of her time,” Vatican Radiosaid. Her Little Sisters of the Poor order of nuns today runs homes for impoverished old people worldwide. She died in 1879.

Toguchi and her doctor, Walter Chang, joined in one basilica procession, and two leprosy patients participated in another.

The new saints had heeded Jesus’ call to “the heroism of sanctity,” sacrificing themselves for others without “calculation or personal gain,” the pope said.

“Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel,” Benedict said in his homily.

Official delegations included King Albert II and Queen Paolo of Belgium; U.S. President Barack Obama‘s new envoy to the Vatican, Miguel H. Diaz; and Hawaii Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka. Poland’s president, France’s prime minister and Spain’s foreign minister also attended.

Obama, born and partially raised in Hawaii, said in a message to mark the canonization that he remembers stories about Damien’s care for people with leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, and its stigma.

The U.S. leader, noting that millions worldwide suffer from disease, especially HIV/AIDS, urged people to follow Damien’s example by “answering the urgent call to heal and care for the sick.”

Honolulu pilgrim Gloria Rodrigues said she saw a link between Damien and AIDS.

“He was a servant of the outcast and should be an inspiration for us today to do as he did,” said Rodrigues, who added she had relatives with leprosy who had been cared for on Molokai, although years after Damien’s work there.

Those with leprosy, which can cause disfigurement, had been ostracized for centuries by societies and even families.

“The way leprosy was perceived then is how AIDS is perceived today” by many people, said Gail Miller, a pilgrim from Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Damien, said Benedict, “not without fear and repugnance,” chose to go to Molokai and risked his health to serve the leprosy patients “who were there, abandoned by all,” and went on to feel “at home with them.”

Damien’s image, vividly showing lesions of leprosy on his face, was draped from the basilica’s facade.

Mills’ pastor, the Rev. James Kean, said their parish, St. Damien of Molokai, in Pontiac, Michigan, is the first U.S. church to be named in the saint’s honor. He said a relic of St. Damien, a fragment of a heel bone, will be brought to their parish from Rome for a day before being taken to Hawaii.

Later greeting the pilgrims in the square, Benedict urged those to help in the battle against leprosy as well as what he called “other forms of leprosy caused by lack of love or cowardliness,” apparent reference to those who psychologically isolate themselves from others.

Also becoming a saint was Zygmunt Szcezesny Felinski, a 19th-century Polish bishop who defended the Catholic faith during the years of the Russian annexation, which had led to the shutdown of Polish churches.

Two Spaniards, Francisco Coll y Guitart, who founded an order of Dominicans in the 19th century, and Rafael Arniaz Baron, who renounced an affluent life at age 22 to live humbly in a strict monastery in the last century, also were raised to sainthood.