Entering the pain of others

Anna Grummitt ponders the legacy of Father Damien of Molokai, and what motivated him - and other modern 'Damiens' - to suffer with others.

Over the past few weeks, as COVID-19 has continued to devastate our world, I’ve been thinking a lot about a 19th-century Catholic priest: Father Damien of Molokai.

Originally from Belgium, Father Damien chose to spend the latter part of his life on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, among people suffering from another terrible disease: leprosy.

Before Father Damien arrived at Molokai’s leper colony in 1873, it was a place of utter despair. Damien did all he could to change this by entering into the pain of those around him, caring deeply for both their physical and spiritual needs and teaching them that they mattered to God.

Eventually, Damien himself contracted and died from the disease. Last week marked the 131st anniversary of his death.

While thinking about his legacy, I naturally started to ask what a modern Father Damien might look like in the time of COVID-19. Then, reading an article in The New York Times, I found him.

Father Hugh Vincent Dyer is a Dominican friar in New York who, when COVID-19 hit, made a quick decision to move into a sealed nursing home in order to minister to its residents. Dyer now broadcasts Mass from an empty chapel to their rooms. He makes phone calls and visits from a safe distance. With several coronavirus cases in the home, death has become more frequent. Like Father Damien, Dyer chose to enter their pain to give them hope.

What motivates someone to make this kind of sacrifice? For Damien, Dyer, and countless like them, it’s the belief in a God who does not remain immune to the pain and brokenness of our world, but who chose to enter into it – who “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows” and brought a hope of future restoration.