By Patrick Downes
HONOLULU (CNS) — No member of the Priestly Fraternity of Molokai had ever been there. Until January.
Father Thierry de Roucy, founder of the fraternity, and Father Gonzague Leroux visited the island made famous by the ministry of St. Damien of Molokai to leprosy patients there.
Until then, the Molokai connection had been purely spiritual — but part of something much bigger.
That something bigger is Heart’s Home, an international Catholic movement that spreads what it calls a “culture of compassion” to impoverished places around the world through mostly lay volunteers living in prayerful communities.
Father de Roucy and Father Leroux came to Molokai to scout out facilities for a retreat in August for 30 to 35 members of Heart’s Home.
Father de Roucy, who has a soft, quiet smile, said he envisioned the organization in a literal “flash” of inspiration.
It came to him on Jan. 4, 1990, more than six years after his ordination as a member of the Congregation of the Servants of Jesus and Mary. The French priest was saying the rosary after lunch outside his monastery. He was on the first joyful mystery, the Annunciation, when the idea “to start a community for the poorest and most suffering in the world” descended upon him like “a light.”
The idea was to open “houses of compassion” in destitute areas to serve the poor, particularly children, by visiting them and keeping an open door.
“My idea was not to found schools, hospitals or orphanages,” Father de Roucy told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu, “but to open a simple house and welcome them during the day and be their friend.”
Father de Roucy, now 52, opened his first two homes in South America with a dozen volunteers and the help of two bishop friends, one in Sao Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the other in Parana, Argentina.
The volunteers were mostly young laymen and women in their 20s, recruited mainly by word of mouth for one or two years of service.
The priest described the communities as “contemplative” with a daily holy hour, rosary, evening prayer and Mass.
As Heart’s Home grew and drew in more people, some volunteers wanted to make their commitment more permanent than that of a lay missionary.
“They wanted to grow in their faith and intimacy with Jesus,” Father de Roucy said. They wanted to take vows, be ordained and dedicate their lives to the movement’s mission of compassion.
That led to the development of four new branches of Heart’s Home:
• St. Maximilian Kolbe fraternities live Heart’s Home’s charism of compassion in their daily lives whatever occupation members have.
• Permanent members take a vow of celibacy and dedicate their lives to Heart’s Home apostolic mission.
• The Servants of God’s Presence are women who live the Heart’s Home charism within a religious congregation. A total of 30 sisters live in communities of five or six each.
• The Sacerdotal Molokai Fraternity is made up of priests who carry out their ministry in accordance with Heart’s Home’s mission.
Today the movement has 35 houses and two Heart’s Home villages in about 20 countries. It has 175 missionaries, 54 permanent volunteers and nine employees. More than 1,200 volunteers have served since 1990.
Financial support comes from sponsors and donations. At some locations, volunteers have part-time jobs.
In the U.S. Heart’s Home has one home in the United States, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is planning another in the San Francisco Bay Area, probably in Oakland, Calif.
Father Leroux, who is also French, is one of the newest members of the priestly fraternity. He said he heard the call to the priesthood while volunteering with Heart’s Home in “a very deprived area” of Kazakhstan.
He joined the organization in Argentina in 1996 while studying for a master’s degree in biology there. He met Father de Roucy in 1997 and decided to volunteer.
“The experience was very tough,” Father Leroux said about Kazakhstan. The former Soviet country was poor, he said, but the real affliction was not poverty but “hopelessness.”
Volunteers were treated with suspicion because children left their presence happy, he said, recalling that one man came to the house because he wanted to learn “how to be a father” so he could make his children smile.
Before their visit to Molokai, the two priests had only known about the island through photos and books. They found it beautiful but liked the people more. They found a “great spirit of hospitality” among the residents, Father Leroux said.
“It is a good community,” he said. “People support one another a lot.”
Father de Roucy said he chose the name “Molokai” for the priestly fraternity after he prayed for a name and what came to him was that of St. Damien of Molokai. But he decided to use the place where the Belgian missionary served.
“I am sure that without Molokai, Father Damien would not be a saint,” he said. “The people sanctify us. The people provoke our hearts to give totally. The place provokes us to be a saint, the people of the place.”
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