July 31, 1997

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


July 31, 1997
Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Man cannot live without love. Love is the fundamental force that animates all of his other energies. That is why God, his Creator, offers him a life of love. "The most sublime aspect of human dignity is found in the calling of man to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God created him through love and, through love, never ceases to give him being; and man can fully live according to the truth only if he freely recognizes this love and entrusts himself to his Creator" (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 19, 1).

All praise be yours!

But how do we recognize love? Saint Ignatius of Loyola remarked: "Love consists in a mutual sharing of goods, that is to say, the lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, or something of that which he has or is able to give; and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover. Hence, if one has knowledge, he shares it with the one who does not possess it; and so also if one has honors, or riches" (Spiritual Exercises, 231).

God, eternal beatitude, immortal life, unfailing light, wishes to share with men the glory of His blessed life. This divine plan is played out in the work of creation and in elevation to grace, but above all in that of the redemption, after the fall of man.

The splendors of creation have already shown us the love of God, and invite us to praise, with Saint Francis of Assisi:

"All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all that You have made,

And first my lord Brother Sun,

Who brings the day; and light You give to us through him.

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!

Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sisters Moon and Stars;

In the heavens You have made them, bright and precious and fair.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,

And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods....

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,

So useful, lowly, precious and pure.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,

Through whom You brighten up the night.

How beautiful he is, how gay! Full of power and strength.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,

Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces

Various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility!"

I love the father

In order to fully win over our hearts, it did not suffice for the love of God to put us in possession of the wonders of the universe, but He went all the way to the complete gift of Himself. Indeed, the heavenly Father gave us His own Son: By this hath the charity of God appeared towards us, because God hath sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we may live by Him (1 John 4: 9). For God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting (John 3: 16). With the Son that He gives to us, He has given to us all possible goods: His grace, His love and paradise. But He went even further: He delivered His Son to death on the cross for our sins: In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because He hath first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 John 4: 10). But God commendeth His charity towards us; because when as yet we were sinners, according to the time, Christ died for us (Romans 5: 8).

For His part, the Son entered perfectly into the views of His Father. From the first moment of His Incarnation, He espoused His plan of redemptive love: Behold I come.... to do Thy will (cf. Heb. 10: 5-10). The sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the entire world is the expression of His communion of love with the Father: Therefore doth the Father love Me: because I lay down My life (John 10: 17). But that the world may know, that I love the Father: and as the Father hath given Me commandment, so do I (John 14: 31). By His obedience unto death, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaias concerning the "suffering Servant" who lays down his life for sin (cf. Is. 53: 10-12). He loved them unto the end (John 13: 1), and it is love which confers its value of redemption and reparation, of expiation and satisfaction on the sacrifice of Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 609).

Love calls for love

For the charity of Christ presseth us (2 Cor. 5: 14). Love testified by the suffering Jesus brings us to offer love for love, and to realize, as far as it is in us, the mutual communication of goods of which Saint Ignatius speaks. Jesus "suffered for us, leaving us an example so that we should follow in His steps (1 Peter 2: 21). In fact Jesus desires to associate with His redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of His Mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of His redemptive suffering" (CCC, 618). "We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus' life and His mysteries and often to beg Him to perfect and realize them in us and in His whole Church.... For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in His mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in His whole Church. This is His plan for fulfilling His mysteries in us" (Saint John Eudes, CCC, 521). Thus, all the saints have been called to fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in their flesh, for His body, which is the Church (Col. 1: 24).

On May 23, 1982, the Pope elevated five blessed to the honors of the altars, among them Father Peter Donders. "We have seen in these men and women a true reflection of the love that constitutes the incomparable richness of God within the life of the Trinity which is shown in the gift of His only Son for the salvation of the world, particularly in His redemptive sacrifice.... By the example of his life, Father Donders showed how the announcement of the Good News of the Redemption and of the deliverance from sin should find support and confirmation in an authentic evangelic life, a life of true love towards one's neighbor, above all towards the least of Christ's brothers" (Homily of May 23, 1982).

A twenty-two year old scholar

Peter Donders was born on October 27, 1809. His family lived in a lowly wooden house in a suburb of Tilburg, in the Netherlands. After going to elementary school, Peter helped his father who was a weaver, but he felt an attraction to the priesthood from a very early age. He was seven years old when his mother passed away. When the priest came to her side, Peter picked up the liturgical book and said, "One day I'll have a book like that." Later he would write: "I will never be able to thank God enough for having kept me from so many dangers which could have compromised my salvation, and for having oriented me towards Mary, His Mother. After God, it is to her that I must attribute my vocation." But he will still have to work several more years as a weaver.

One day, he wrote to the parish priest to ask him for help in beginning the study of Latin. The priest was quite perplexed: to put off the youth would be a mistake; but wouldn't it be imprudent to send him off to a seminary? This boy was already 22 years old, and he had never shown any brilliance at the elementary school.... After many difficulties, he nevertheless found himself seated on a bench in the classroom, being taunted by the younger students. Little by little, he won everyone over: teachers, students and hired help. In 1839, he entered the major seminary of Haaren with the intention of becoming a missionary. While there, he met Msgr. Jacques Grooff, apostolic vicar of Suriname (Dutch Guiana). The prelate showed the theology students the spiritual needs of his vicariate. The seminarians listened to him with interest, but only one, Peter Donders, expressed his intention of following him. Msgr. Grooff accepted him. Peter, ordained a priest on June 5, 1841, was officially named "apostolic missionary" on April 14, 1842, and was soon at his post, his soul overflowing with joy.

Suriname, an equatorial territory in the northern part of South America, is four times the size of Holland. At the time, it only had 140,000 inhabitants, of whom 20,000 lived in Paramaribo, the capital. An immense forest inhabited by wild beasts covered nearly all the country. The population was quite cosmopolitan: natives, Creoles, Africans, Chinese, Arabs, British, German, French and Dutch. The apostolate of Peter Donders was based in Paramaribo for the first fourteen years. On October 7, 1842, Msgr. Grooff took him with him to the government leper colony of Batavia, in the middle of a forest of palm trees. They arrived by boat on the evening of the eighth. After blessing the lepers, the apostolic vicar went to the wooden church, where they chanted the Our Father.

Profound emotion

Father Donders noted: "A profound emotion gripped my heart at the sight of this gathering. Some of the sick had lost their toes, others their hands; still others had terribly swollen legs. Some, whose tongue had been stricken, could no longer speak; all of them could barely walk." He concluded: "Their illness is not a disgrace. How good God is with them, and how paternal is His Providence! Because for most of them, illness is the only means of salvation." Indeed, "very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to Him" (CCC, 1501).

Msgr. Grooff and his companion stayed at the leper colony until October 20. The young missionary baptized three children and two old men. He also gave First Communion to three older women and to an 11 year old girl, bound for an early death. He married two of the sick, both of whom were almost totally deprived of their fingers. But above all, the missionaries comforted these unfortunate souls who, upon their departure, accompanied them weeping to the boat.

On the river, Msgr. Grooff pointed out another field of action to his companion: the coffee, cotton and sugarcane plantations, where the slaves lived a painful existence. There were around 400 of these plantations, where 40,000 Africans were forced to work without respite under the whip of overseers. Only death would set them free. It was not easy to approach them, because the landowners distrusted Catholic missionaries, who were declared enemies of their immorality and of their shameful speculation. Father Donders had to confront these frightening overseers. But, if they ran him off, he went away with a smile generously wishing them prosperity. Then, as soon as possible, after praying a long time, he came back, once, twice and again, seeking to soften up these hard hearted individuals. Thus it was that he came to an agreement with an overseer who let him carry out his mission. In the same way, he managed to gain entry into three, then five, then thirty-two of the camps where he gave religious instruction to the slaves. The number of those baptized went from 1,145 in 1851 to 3,000 in 1866. Prayer, tireless patience and the simplicity of the missionary were responsible for this increase.

Despite his apostolic missions in the back country, Father Donders was kept for a good part of the year in Paramaribo, where he ministered to some 2,000 Catholics in the capital. Through his charity, he became everyone's father; he gave everything he had to the poor. When he had nothing more, he employed ruses to get his bishop to open up his purse: "But, my dear fellow," the bishop said to him one day, "All you do is give, give! What will you do when I'm dead?" - "Oh! God never dies," Father Donders replied.

One day, all he had left to help a needy family was his watch. So he went to a secondhand dealer and sold it to him. Moved, the dealer decided to give it back to him; but Father Donders wasn't at the house, so he gave it back to the bishop. At dinner time, the latter said to those with him, "My friends, I received a watch as a gift. Let us draw straws and see who will be the lucky winner." Obviously, it was won by Father Donders, who thanked him with a smile.

In 1843, during a cholera epidemic, Father Donders worked above and beyond the call of duty, but he did not fall ill. Seven years later, it was yellow fever, worse than cholera. This time Father Donders did fall ill and spent four weeks between life and death before getting back on his feet. "Who among you would willingly go to Batavia, where the government sends the lepers?" the bishop asked of his missionaries one day. "I would, Your Excellency," Father Donders quickly answered.

Twenty-eight years with the lepers

So he went, and stayed for twenty-eight years. It was a position that nobody before him was able to hold for more than two years. A soldier in the garrison at Suriname testified: "This priest did for the lepers what no one else in the world would have been able to do. One day when I asked to see the living quarters, Father answered, `Oh! no, young man, you wouldn't be able to stand such a horror!' " For their eternal salvation, Father Donders daily overcame this horrid sight for more than a third of his existence.

From time to time, boats disembarked new lepers at the leper colony. They cried out in despair at the sight of the place that they would never get out of. Then suddenly they calmed down when they saw the wan and gaunt face of Father Donders. There was a lot of goodness in his eyes; on his lips a smile; encouragement in his voice. He led the new arrivals to their cabins, and brought cakes and refreshments. He invited them to enjoy themselves, because, he said, "from now on we are friends," which he certainly did prove to them. He instructed his lepers in religion, helped them pray, cared for them, fed those whose hands were gone. Nevertheless, he refused to assist at surgical operations, because he could not stand the sight of blood. Based on this, we can better understand what he had to go through to overcome such a sensitivity that was put to a difficult test every day for so many years.

In 1873, the governor of the colony wished to remove the children of the lepers from the danger of contagion. When he sought to remove them by force from their parents, there was a revolt in the leper colony. At this point, Father asked the soldiers to withdraw, then he spoke to the crowd: "If you love your children, don't let them die of leprosy!" Then, the mothers let go of their babies. Only one Chinese ran away with his child, having decided to kill him rather than let him go. Father Donders caught up with him and convinced him to let the child go.

In 1867, at the age of 57, after a novitiate of six months, he took his vows in the Congregation of the Redemptorists. Unexpected events had led him to do this, but he did not conceal his joy at being admitted to the religious life. After his apostolate to the lepers, he consecrated himself to the conversion of the Carib tribe, men who were savages and cannibals. First, it was necessary to find them in the middle of the forest or the swamp, and then to gently approach them. They listened without difficulty to talk of Heaven, Hell, eternal salvation and of Jesus the Redeemer. But when the missionary revealed Christian morality, they became mute, since they were used to a life of polygamy and vice. His incorrigible enemies, the shamans, declared to the Indians: "If you let your children be baptized, they will die." So the natives hid their children when the missionary came to them. Nevertheless, Father Donders did succeed in converting several shamans, whose example was soon followed, so much so that a witness could say: "Nearly all of the Indians of this region embraced the faith."

Perfect resemblance

In order to perfect the resemblance between Father Donders and Jesus, rejected and despised by those he had come to save, Providence permitted the missionary to be taken away from his apostolate in January, 1883. Some lepers, led by a certain Joseph who had been reproached by Father Donders for his scandalous behavior, went to seek out the bishop. They asked for the removal of the missionary, on the pretext that he was too old. The bishop agreed. But in November, 1885, Father Donders was sent back to Batavia in order to answer urgent needs. He was to finish his days among the lepers who welcomed him on their knees.

In December, 1886, he became ill with a serious nephritis. During the night of January 5 to 6, 1887, he called for the last rites which were given to him by a Redemptorist father who was a leper. On January 12, the sick man said to the doctor: "Just a little more patience! On Friday, around three in the afternoon, I will die!" It was a prophecy. He passed away on Friday, January 14, at 3: 30 in the afternoon. All of the lepers wept, even those who a few years before had wanted him removed from Batavia.

Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15: 13). Like the Redeemer, Father Donders gave his life for his brothers. May we, following his example, read in the Passion of Christ the most striking manifestation of the Love of God for us: "O unfathomable love of charity, to redeem the slave, you delivered the Son!" (Liturgy of the Easter Vigil). Let us ask the Spirit of Love to come down from the Heart of Jesus crucified into the intimacy of our hearts. Then we will understand these words of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus: "Living on love is not setting up one's tent at the top of Tabor. It's climbing Calvary with Jesus, it's looking at the Cross as a treasure." Saint Benedict exhorted his monks in the same sense, in the Prologue of the Rule: "Let us take part by patience in the sufferings of Christ, in order to be worthy to partake of His kingdom."

Such is the grace that we ask for, through the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, for you and for all of those who are dear to you. We pray also for all of your dearly deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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