Risk of Death for Another – Part XIX

Extreme acts of charity include tending patients with incurable diseases



Let’s take a look at individuals who have risked death for the sake of another.

Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, wrote a long essay that recounted the history of the development of the Apostolic Letter On Offer of Life, a document quoted in Part XVIII of this series. In the essay he gave an historical example of the “extreme act of charity [of] providing assistance to plague victims, which, triggering infection, became a certain cause of death” (Archbishop Marcello Bartollucci, “The Offer of Life in the Causes of Saints,” L’Osservatore Romano, July 11, 2017). Note that On Offer of Life specifically requires premature death of the deceased for canonization. I respectfully suggest this concept should require only exposing oneself to death, just as Archbishop Bartolucci seemed to indicate with his example.

I have suggested that we all — laity, bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers — need to imagine what holiness looks like when it manifests in laypersons. Archbishop Bartolucci said much the same thing in his essay. He wrote that the Apostolic Letter was needed “to promote heroic Christian testimony [that has been] up to now without a specific process, precisely because it did not completely fit within the case of martyrdom or heroic virtues.” The Apostolic Letter created a new category and a new process. It adopted a new way of thinking.

Let me give examples of laypersons who performed extreme acts of charity. In the following case, it was assistance not to victims of plague but of leprosy. The Brooklyn Eagle of Nov. 26, 1935, page 3, announced the wedding of Dr. Harry Blaber and nurse Constance White. The announcement said Mrs. Blaber would accompany her husband to China and tend patients with leprosy – before there was a cure.

St. Damien of Molokai (1840-1889) ministered to people with leprosy. He died of the disease. He was a priest and was canonized in 2009. (See my biographical essay, “First Ironman of Hawaii,” American Spectator, Oct. 9, 2009, online.) A layman, Servant of God Joseph Dutton, a Civil War veteran, came to Molokai in 1886 to work with Damien and stayed 45 years until his death, not from leprosy, in 1931 at age 87. Similarly, Saint Marianne Cope (1838-1918) exposed herself continually to leprosy, without contracting it, as St. Damien had promised her and her sister. I have no information on whether any of the sisters, such as Sister Leopoldina Burns (1855-1942), who worked with Saint Marianne, have causes for canonization.

In our day, it is not leprosy but Ebola or perhaps coronavirus or other diseases that threaten. Surgeon Martin Salia, a Catholic resident of Maryland, returned to his native Sierra Leone to serve. He contracted Ebola and died November 17, 2014 (Robert Samuels, “Surgeon Who Died of Ebola Receives a Hero’s Memorial in Maryland,” Washington Post, Nov. 29, 2014). A Congolese doctor told his story about how he stayed in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic (Dr. Senga Omeonga, “That’s Why I Stayed: A Doctor’s Struggle Against Ebola at Monrovia,” Zenit, March 21, 2017).

Pope St. John Paul II’s older brother Edmund Wojtyla (1906-1932) was a young physician who volunteered to care for a patient with infectious scarlet fever from which he died. The Letter of the Polish Bishops on the centenary of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II states, “His brother Edmund died at the age of 26, as a young doctor when he contracted an illness from a sick patient, giving whilst attending to them. His tombstone has the inscription +He gave his young life was given to aid suffering humanity+. To commemorate his older brother, our holy Pope kept a medical stethoscope on his desk.”

To be continued…


***Editor’s Note: For Part XX in this series, click here


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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