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Life and light in midst of suffering


Damien,” Aldyth Morris’ one-man play now being performed by actor Casey Groves off-Broadway in New York, tells the story of the Belgium-born priest who ministered to the lepers of the Hawaiian island, Molokai, before dying of leprosy in 1889 at the age of 49. It is the powerful story of a man who went where no priest would go -- to a rock of an island surrounded by forbidding cliffs and pounding surf, a “place without sunset,” where lepers were shipped by the board of health to die. It is graphic -- Father Damien describes the lepers’ “maggot-bloated sores” -- and it is transcendent. He copes “by remembering those worm-infested ulcers are the wounds of Christ.”

What makes “Damien” such good drama is that it portrays a man worthy of sainthood without shrouding him in shallow piety. He can be stubborn, angry and impatient, but these all-too-human traits are overshadowed by his faith and compassion. His work was to become the foundation for a hospice movement worldwide and, because of his ministry to people dying of lethal infectious disease, he has become the unofficial patron saint of people living with AIDS. A member of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, he was beatified June 4, 1995.

The play begins in 1936 when Father Damien’s body is exhumed from its grave on Molokai to be sent back to Belgium for burial in a place of honor. Father Damien addresses the audience, voicing his protest that he is being taken away from the people for whom he had cared and died. The story then follows his life backwards. As his casket is at first taken to the cathedral in Honolulu, Father Damien tells of his arrival there in 1873. When his casket is loaded onto a ship and passes Molokai, Groves dramatizes the bulk of the story, beginning with Father Damien’s first impressions. “Dear God, how could such things be?” he asks when he sees the lepers and their living conditions. He soon decides to stay. “This is my niche. This is what I was meant to do. This is why I was born.”

Wanting the lepers to live out their lives in peace and beauty, Father Damien builds houses, gardens, roads and docks with them, ministering and singing to them, as well as enforcing discipline. He fights local authorities and his own church to improve their lives. He makes the world aware of their agony.

We understand some of Father Damien’s struggle as we hear his side of an argument with the bishop who has apparently been asking him about the procedures he followed before giving last rites to two lepers. “You don’t ask a leper if he’s a Catholic, your excellency,” Father Damien snaps, giving his opinion that God won’t either. “When a leper on his deathbed cries out for absolution, you go to him … and in the name of Christ forgive him.” But the bishop is not won over, as Father Damien recounts. “I was, his excellency says, a defective priest.”

In a powerful scene, we see what Father Damien has to go through to receive the sacraments after he has been diagnosed with leprosy. He has been in despair because he is barred from going into Hawaii for the sacrament of reconciliation. He speaks of what a great hardship it is for a priest working without a companion priest to go weeks or months without being able to make a confession and sees this tactic as his superiors’ way of forcing him off the island. “They want to get rid of me,” he says. “They know I can’t live without the sacraments.”

Finally a ship carrying his provincial anchors offshore and Father Damien rows out beside it. Groves kneels on the floor, swaying as if he were rolling on the sea in a small boat, and makes his confession. “As the ship begins to move away,” he says, “I feel the peace of absolution.”

The play closes with Father Damien returning to Belgium, recognizing the farm of his childhood and the Sacred Heart house where his father took him when he was 20 to become a priest. He is happy at first, but has doubts about whether he shouldn’t have remained at Molokai. Realizing that these doubts separate him from Christ, he accepts his homecoming in peace. “If it is these doubts themselves that come between us, Lord, then I cast them out.”

Groves, 31, took on the role of Father Damien as a student at De La Salle High School in New Orleans in 1987. He has studied drama in England, been featured extensively at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., and has appeared in many New York productions. He hopes to tour with “Damien” if he can arrange bookings.

“A lot of times I’m a mess personally, but to play a character who brought so much life and light in the midst of so much suffering helps me cultivate that kind of compassion,” he says. “It makes my heart light. I don’t want to get too weird, but I feel he’s with me, guarding me. I do feel blessed when I do it.”

“Damien,” with Casey Groves, is a beautiful play, beautifully performed, about a life beautifully lived.

Retta Blaney’s second book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward. Groves is among the actors featured.

“Damien” will be at the Jose Quintero Theatre, 534 W. 42nd St., from Feb. 7 through Feb. 17. For tickets call (212) 244-7529. For information about future performances, call Open Road Productions, (212) 358-5906.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2002