By John Thavis
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Calling them “shining examples” of Christian love, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed five new saints, including Father Damien de Veuster, the 19th-century Belgian missionary who ministered to people with leprosy in Hawaii before dying of the disease.
At a Mass Oct. 11 overflowing with pilgrims from around the world, the pope also canonized Sister Jeanne Jugan, a French nun whose Little Sisters of the Poor continue to assist the elderly in the United States and more than 30 other countries.
After brief biographies of the five were read aloud, the pope pronounced a solemn decree of canonization and proclaimed them models of holiness for the whole church. Relics of the new saints were placed on the altar as St. Peter’s Basilica was filled with a sung “Alleluia.”
In his homily, the pope said the newly canonized had typified the Christian vocation of radical conversion and self-sacrifice made “with no thought of human calculation and advantage.”
“Their perfection, in the logic of the faith that is sometimes humanly incomprehensible, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but in choosing to go against the current by living according to the Gospel,” he said.
Thousands of U.S. pilgrims came to Rome for the canonization, including a delegation of leprosy patients and their caregivers from Hawaii, where St. Damien worked and died, and residents from homes for the aged run by Little Sisters of the Poor across the United States.
The basilica was filled beyond capacity, and an estimated 40,000 people watched the liturgy on giant TV screens in St. Peter’s Square. The Mass was moved inside at the last minute because of a threat of rain, but blue skies and sunshine prevailed throughout the liturgy.
St. Damien, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, worked on the island of Hawaii for eight years before volunteering in 1873 to work at a leprosy colony on Molokai, where he served as pastor, doctor and counselor to some 800 patients. In 1884 he contracted leprosy but, refusing to leave the island for treatment, continued to work until the month before his death at age 49 in 1889.
The pope said St. Damien “felt at home” as “a leper with the lepers” during the final years of his life.
“He invites us to open our eyes toward the `leprosies’ that disfigure the humanity of our brothers and sisters and that today still call, more than for our generosity, for the charity of our serving presence,” he said.
The procession to place St. Damien’s relics on the altar included Hawaii resident Audrey Toguchi, 81, whose cure from cancer was attributed to the miraculous intercession of St. Damien, as well as her doctor and a leprosy patient from Hawaii.
St. Damien has been considered an intercessor for patients with leprosy and, more recently, HIV and AIDS. The Vatican’s liturgical program for the canonization described St. Damien as a voice for “rejected people of all kinds: the incurably ill (victims of AIDS or other diseases), abandoned children, disoriented youths, exploited women, neglected elderly people and oppressed minorities.”
In his homily, the pope said that in view of her service to the elderly, St. Jeanne Jugan was “a beacon” for modern societies, which “have still to rediscover the unique place and contribution of this period of life.” She was so effective with the aged because she recognized in them the person of Christ, he said.
“Her charism is still relevant, because so many older people suffer from fears and solitude, having sometimes been abandoned even by their families,” he said.
Born in northern France in 1792, St. Jeanne formed a small prayer community and, in 1839, brought home a sick and blind elderly widow, giving the woman her own bed. 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 pope noted that St. Jeanne had herself accepted “obscurity and deprivation” in her later years, a reference to the fact that she was removed as superior of her religious order and sent out to beg on behalf of the poor. She died in 1879, and today the Little Sisters serve more than 13,000 elderly residents in 202 homes around the world.
The other new saints included a Pole and two Spaniards:
• St. Zygmunt Felinski, a former archbishop of Warsaw, Poland, and founder of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary. Born in 1822 near Volinia, which today is in Ukraine, he was deported to Russia and, after being freed, worked among the poor farmers of Ukraine and Poland, founding schools for rural children. He died in 1895, and today the church sees him as an intercessor for all who are persecuted.
• St. Francisco Coll Guitart, a Spanish Dominican priest who founded the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the 19th century. He was famed for his evangelical preaching, aimed especially at Catholics who had lapsed from the practice of the faith. He made great use of the rosary, initiating the “perpetual rosary” in parts of Spain, in which thousands of people took part. His popular missions continued until his death in 1875 at the age of 62.
• St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron, a 20th-century Spanish Trappist brother known for his humility and life of prayer. As a student of architecture in the 1930s, he suddenly broke off his training to enter the contemplative life. Soon after he was stricken with a serious form of diabetes. He died in 1938 at age 27, and his prayerful devotion and his spiritual writings led people to describe him as a great mystic.
At the end of the Mass, the pope spoke from the steps of the basilica to pilgrims who filled the square. They cheered, applauded and waved banners as each of the saints was named. Addressing English-speaking people, the pope said he hoped the new saints would “inspire you by the example of their holy lives.”
The pope also greeted a group of Japanese survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and said: “I pray that the world may never again witness such mass destruction of innocent human life.”
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