Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ireland's "Saint Damien"

Perhaps many of you outside of Ireland may not have heard of St Carthage, but long long before St Damien ever made his way to Molokai, St Carthage, Abbot and later Bishop, devoted his life to the service of those suffering from leprosy, and like the priest of Molokai, he was ostracized and exiled for this work of charity. 

St Carthage "of the Lepers" was a Kerryman born into a noble family, and as young boy showed a deep love for the Scriptures. Hearing the Psalms sung, he was inspired to sing them himself, and so he would about his daily tasks singing the psalms to the edification of all who heard him. One of those who was edified was the local king, and sitting the boy down suggested that he might consider becoming a priest. Carthage agreed, this was what he wanted, so the king arranged to have him accepted as a candidate for ordination, and Carthage was ordained. Following ordination it is believed that he went to the great university-monastery of Bangor, and then, like many other Irish priest-monks, he sought solitude and ended up founding a new monastery in 595 Rahan, County Offaly - not far from my native town. 

It was in this monastery that he established a hospice for lepers, and with numerous men offering themselves as monks in the monastery, soon Carthage had a major foundation on his hands and plenty of men to assist him in his ministry to the sick. However, things did not go as one would hope in a Christian country: Rahan is no Molokai, it is not an isolated place, and so opposition to Carthage's work grew over the years. As a supporter of the Roman date of Easter, Carthage didn't endear himself to some locals who were advocates for the Celtic system. Eventually in 637 his opponents managed to drive him out, and gathering hundreds of monks now attached to his foundation and his beloved lepers, Carthage left Rahan and went in search of a new home. He found it in Lismore in County Waterford where the locals welcomed him and his lepers with open arms, and there he established a new monastery. However, he would not live to see it flourish, he died the following year, 638.  At some point Carthage, Abbot of Rahan and later of Lismore, became a Bishop and we honour him today as such.

We have no evidence that he contracted the disease, nor was he the only one caring for lepers in Ireland, but it is good to have a Saint here who embraced the outcasts and even suffered to protect and care for them. Today is his feast day.

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