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Saint Damien of Molokai: Robert Louis Stevenson's prediction fulfilled
On 12 October 2009, Benedict XVI canonised five new saints in St Peter's Basilica, among them Fr Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), the Belgian priest who worked among the lepers in Hawaii in the 19th century.
In 1890, the noted author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) predicted that Fr Damien would be canonised in a century's time. This was in the course of an Open Letter to the Rev Dr Hyde of Honolulu who, like Stevenson, was a Presbyterian. It was in response to Rev Hyde's scandalous comments in a letter published in a Sydney church newspaper about the recently deceased Fr Damien. The following are extracts from Stevenson's Open Letter.
Father Damien of Molokai
You know enough, doubtless, of the process of canonisation to be aware that, a hundred years after the death of Damien, there will appear a man charged with the painful office of the devil's advocate. After that noble brother of mine [Father Damien] shall have lain a century at rest, one shall accuse, one defend him.
The circumstance is unusual that the devil's advocate should be a volunteer, should be a member of a sect immediately rival, and should make haste to take upon himself his ugly office ere the bones are cold.
If I have at all learned the trade of using words to convey truth and to arouse emotion, you have at last furnished me with a subject.
For it is in the interest of all mankind, and the cause of public decency in every quarter of the world, not only that Damien should be righted, but that you and your letter should be displayed at length, in their true colours, to the public eye.
To do this properly, I must begin by quoting you at large: I shall then proceed to criticise your utterance from several points of view, divine and human, in the course of which I shall attempt to draw again, and with more specification, the character of the dead saint whom it has pleased you to vilify.
We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry?
Your Church and Damien's were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence; that when you had been outstripped in that high rivalry, and sat inglorious in the midst of your well-being, in your pleasant room - and Damien, crowned with glories and horrors, toiled and rotted in that pigsty of his under the cliffs of Kalawao - you, the elect who would not, were the last man on earth to collect and propagate gossip on the volunteer who would and did.
The world, in your despite, may perhaps owe you something, if your letter be the means of substituting once for all a credible likeness for a wax abstraction.
For, if that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 22 No 11 (December 2009 - January 2010), p. 13
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