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St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer

Feast date: Jun 26

On June 26, the Catholic Church commemorates the life of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, priest and founder of The Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei.

He was born in Barbastro, Spain on January 9, 1902 into a pious family. When he was young, he one day saw bare footprints left in the snow by a monk. The small sign left a great impression of holiness on the young man that would begin to guide his life and foster a vocation to the priesthood.

He developed a prayer life intensely centered on the Eucharist during his priestly studies in Logroño, and also cultivated deep devotion to Mary. “The Blessed Virgin has always helped me to discover her Son’s desires,” he said, and would often pray for her to ask God to reveal his will to him.

On March 28, 1925, Josemaría was ordained to the priesthood. During his early ministry, he worked among a variety of people, including children, students, artists, and workers, while also teaching law to help support his mother and sister.

Three years later, while on retreat, Josemaría saw the mission God intended for him, that of opening up a new spirituality and vocational path for the laity in the form of Opus Dei (“the work of God”). This prelature would become the central focus of his life, serving many of the unmet spiritual needs of lay people at the time.

The young movement began to grow quickly, attracting in particular university students. In the late 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War brought great hardships for the Church while Josemaría continued his work. His reputation for holiness, and thus his movement, began to grow in this time.

In 1946, Josemaría moved to Rome to obtain papal recognition of his movement from Pope Pius XII, which was granted the following year. Even as successive popes sent their blessings and affection, the work involved in expanding Opus Dei took a toll on Josemaría. Nonetheless, he is said to have never stopped smiling.

Josemaría welcomed Pope John XXIII’s calling of the Second Vatican Council. His work in expanding the way to holiness for lay persons was seen by the Council Fathers seen as a precursor to Vatican II’s renewed focus on the life of the laity. He worked swiftly to implement the Council’s decisions into the life and worship of Opus Dei.

In the latter years of his life, Josemaría traveled throughout the world to catechize his organization, often drawing crowds of thousands.

On June 26, 1975, Josemaría died in his workroom of a heart attack. The last thing he ever looked upon was an hanging icon of Our Lady. At his death, Opus Dei was present on all inhabited continents, numbering over 60,000 people from more than 80 nationalities.

When my Uncle Jim was murdered, I wondered if this is what it would take for every American to care about gun violence: to lose someone they loved.

St. Damien of Moloka'i

Feast date: May 10

The Catholic Church remembers St. Damien of Molokai on May 10. The Belgian priest sacrificed his life and health to become a spiritual father to the victims of leprosy quarantined on a Hawaiian island.

Joseph de Veuser, who later took the name Damien in religious life, was born into a farming family in the Belgian town of Tremlo in 1840. During his youth he felt a calling to become a Catholic missionary, an urge that prompted him to join the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Damien's final vows to the congregation involved a dramatic ceremony in which his superiors draped him in the cloth that would be used to cover his coffin after death. The custom was meant to symbolize the young man's solemn commitment, and his identification with Christ's own death. For Damien, the event would become more significant, as he would go on to lay down his life for the lepers of Molokai.

His superiors originally intended to send Damien's brother, a member of the same congregation, to Hawaii. But he became sick, and Damien arranged to take his place. Damien arrived in Honolulu in 1864, less than a century after Europeans had begun to establish a presence in Hawaii. He was ordained a priest the same year.

During his ninth year of the priesthood, Father Damien responded to his bishop's call for priests to serve on the leper colony of Molokai. A lack of previous exposure to leprosy, which had no treatment at the time, made the Hawaiian natives especially susceptible to the infection. Molokai became a quarantine center for the victims, who became disfigured and debilitated as the disease progressed.

The island had become a wasteland in human terms, despite its natural beauty. The leprosy victims of Molokai faced hopeless conditions and extreme deprivation, sometimes lacking not only basic palliative care but even the means of survival.

Inwardly, Fr. Damien was terrified by the prospect of contracting leprosy himself. However, he knew that he would have to set aside this fear in order to convey God's love to the lepers in the most authentic way. Other missionaries had kept the lepers at arms' length, but Fr. Damien chose to immerse himself in their common life and leave the outcome to God.

The inhabitants of Molokai saw the difference in the new priest's approach, and embraced his efforts to improve their living conditions. A strong man, accustomed to physical labor, he performed the Church's traditional works of mercy – such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and giving proper burial to the dead – in the face of suffering that others could hardly even bear to see.

Fr. Damien's work helped to raise the lepers up from their physical sufferings, while also making them aware of their worth as beloved children of God. Although he could not take away the constant presence of death in the leper colony, he could change its meaning and inspire hope. The death-sentence of leprosy could, and often did, become a painful yet redemptive path toward eternal life.

The priest's devotion to his people, and his activism on their behalf, sometimes alienated him from officials of the Hawaiian kingdom and from his religious superiors in Europe. His mission was not only fateful, but also lonely. He drew strength from Eucharistic adoration and the celebration of the Mass, but longed for another priest to arrive so that he could receive the sacrament of confession regularly.

In December of 1884, Fr. Damien discovered that he had lost all feeling in his feet. It was an early, but unmistakable sign that he had contracted leprosy. The priest knew that his time was short. He undertook to finish whatever accomplishments he could, on behalf of his fellow colony residents, before the diseased robbed him of his eyesight, speech and mobility.

Fr. Damien suffered humiliations and personal trials during his final years. An American Protestant minister accused him of scandalous behavior, based on the contemporary belief that leprosy was a sexually transmitted disease. He ran into disagreements with his religious superiors, and felt psychologically tormented by the notion that his work had been a failure.

In the end, priests of his congregation arrived to administer the last sacraments to the dying priest. During the Spring of 1889, Fr. Damien told his friends that he believed it was God's will for him to spend the upcoming Easter not on Molokai, but in heaven. He died of leprosy during Holy Week, on April 15, 1889.

St. Damien of Molokai was beatified in 1995. Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in 2009.