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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 16, 2004

Wait casts worry on Damien sainthood

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

When a tribunal of Hawai'i Roman Catholics wrapped up its investigation into a purported miracle attributed to Father Damien a year ago, there was optimism it would be enough to propel the Moloka'i legend into the legion of saints.

In fact, with strong medical evidence supporting the case, there was even speculation that Damien would earn his halo within a year.

But today, a year has come and gone, and there is still no word from Rome about when or if Damien will become a saint.

Sister Helene Wood, the vice postulator who is heading the cause for Damien locally, said she fears a problem might be holding up the process. She said she and others were hoping the date for Damien's canonization would have been scheduled by now.

"We're all a little disappointed it hasn't come out yet," Wood said yesterday.

The Belgian priest renowned for his service to the Hansen's disease patients of Kalaupapa in the 19th century is one verifiable miracle away from sainthood. The pope bestowed the title "blessed" on Damien in 1995, based on a miracle ascribed to him six years after his death in 1889.

Last year, the Honolulu Diocese assembled a tribunal to examine an O'ahu woman's story that her cancer was cured after she traveled to Moloka'i to pray at Damien's grave.

The patient and her family members were among those who testified before the tribunal. Also testifying was Dr. Walter Y.M. Chang, a Honolulu physician — and non-Catholic — who wrote about the spontaneous regression of the woman's cancer in the October 2000 issue of Hawai'i Medical Journal.

Chang wrote that a malignant tumor had developed in the patient's lung in September 1998 and then disappeared without the aid of therapy. The spontaneous regression of this type of cancer may be the first case report of its kind, the scientific paper said. Other doctors who treated the woman also testified.

When the tribunal adjourned on April 16, 2003, local Catholic leaders expressed optimism that Damien would achieve sainthood relatively quickly. The medical evidence appeared strong, they said, and Pope John Paul II has not been shy about elevating deserving servants of the Lord.

Wood said she's now perplexed as to why Damien's canonization hasn't moved along more swiftly.

She said she's wondering if the Congregation for the Causes of Saints — the Vatican panel that oversees the canonization process and makes recommendations to the pope — might be wavering over some testimony or other evidence found in the tribunal's 190-page report on the miracle.

Wood speculated that the committee of cardinals, priests, nuns, lay people and canon lawyers may have found a contradiction or some other flaw not seen in Honolulu. Wood said reading the evidence might come across differently to those across the ocean than to those who heard it here.

"We'll just have to wait on Rome and see if there's something we have to attend to, or something that needs to be done," she said.

The Rev. Joseph Grimaldi, the diocese vicar general and tribunal chairman, downplayed the delay, saying the canonization process is lengthy. "A year is a long time, but in Rome a year is nothing," he said.

Grimaldi said he understood the initial reviews in Rome were positive, and he remains confident Damien will achieve sainthood.

"There's no urgency. It's just a matter of time," he said. "I look forward to it myself. I don't have any inside scopes as to when it will happen. But there is no indication that it will be tomorrow or in six months."

It turns out the process did not get off to a fast start. While the case for Damien's miracle reached the Congregation for the Causes of Saints within eight days, the formal examination wasn't launched until Sept. 11.

According to the Web site of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary — Damien's order — the process was delayed because of a personnel shortage in the Vatican office. The official in charge of opening the case was hospitalized. Only upon his return from a vacation did the case move forward.

The pope, who has named 477 saints and beatified 1,324 people during his 25 years as pontiff, is scheduled to beatify six more individuals in St. Peter's Square on April 25 and hold canonization ceremonies for six others on May 16.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.