Blessed Jan Beyzym, S.J.
(1850 Ukraine – 1912 Madagascar)
One day in 1890, at a Jesuit community in the Ukraine, an article about lepers was being read in the refectory. A novice pushed away his plate, saying, «I'm amazed that people can read such disgusting things during meals.» His neighbor, who was listening with a completely different frame of mind, was moved by the description of the lepers' sufferings... A few years later, he spoke about it to his confessor, Father Beyzym. The confessor, profoundly moved in turn, seized the opportunity to ask to leave to serve the lepers. «I know very well,» he wrote to the Superior General of the Jesuits, «what leprosy is and what I must expect. However, all this doesn't frighten me—on the contrary, it attracts me.»
Jan Beyzym was born on May 15, 1850 in Beyzymy Wielkie, in modern-day Ukraine. Although he was loyal and ardent in his work, his terrible shyness as a child put him at a disadvantage. From his earliest years, he shared his family's very special devotion to Mary. Jan thought about becoming a priest in a modest parish in the country, but his father steered him towards the Jesuits instead. After a long interior struggle, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, on December 10, 1872. During the two years of novitiate, Jan was introduced to the religious life, which blends spiritual exercises, practical occupations and works of charity. Used to a hard life, he did not suffer much from the discipline he had to submit to, but remained a little unpolished in his relations with others. When his novitiate ended, he pursued studies in philosophy and theology until his priestly ordination in Krakow, Poland, on July 26, 1881. His ardent soul revealed itself in these words: «We are working for God, for Heaven, and we should not allow ourselves to be outdone in our work and sacrifices by those who work for material goods or live only for the world.»
«Hoist the anchor, and full steam ahead!»
Father Beyzym was designated prefect of students at the Jesuit school in Tarnopol, then in Chyrów. After teaching French and Russian, he was named prefect of the infirmary, a position that brought with it heavy responsibility and a nearly maternal vigilance over the ten rooms that accommodated the sick students. He circulated from bed to bed, making a great effort to entertain sick and convalescent students with stories and games that boosted the morale of the students and nurses. A clever wit made his austere life easier. One day, a student with a very high fever became delirious. He wanted to get dressed, saying that he had to meet the ship that was about to sail to America. The nurse on duty tried in vain to reason with him. Father Beyzym arrived unexpectedly on the scene. «Where do you think you're going?»—«To the ship.»—«Good! I just happen to be the captain of the ship. We'll leave together.» And, taking the sick boy in his arms, he proceeded to lay him down in another room. «Here we are—it's a good thing we got on board. Now hoist the anchor, and full steam ahead!» Completely astounded, the child became calm on the spot.
Energy and sweetness were united in Father Beyzym's soul. He loved nature and flowers which he grew to decorate the altar and patients' rooms. He had an aquarium, a canary cage, and another cage that he made himself for a squirrel to play in. Seeing these creatures helped him to lift his thoughts and those of his students to God. He made every effort to convey to children his devotion to Mary. One of the conferences that he gave for them began like this: «The surest and most necessary help for our conversion, for our sanctification, and for our salvation is devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin.» Father Beyzym understood childhood wonderfully, its weaknesses and its good points. The sad expression with which he responded to an improper remark or action sufficed to fill the guilty party with repentance.
Having given everything to serving children, Father Beyzym felt growing in himself the need to love and sacrifice even more for the suffering. It was at this time that he asked to devote himself to serving the lepers. His wish was granted, and he was assigned to the mission in Madagascar. He left his country on October 17, 1898, and arrived in Tananarive on the following December 30. He was entrusted with the leper colony in Ambahivoraka, 10 km north of the city. The 150 lepers who lived there led an existence that was beyond wretched. Excluded from the company of mankind, tormented by pain, hungry and thirsty, they lived in tumbledown huts, without windows, without floors, without the essentials. During the rainy season, they lived in the water and damp. Faced with such suffering, Father Beyzym prayed to God to bring relief to these needy people, and when no one was looking, he wept bitterly, because he was unable to look at such human suffering without compassion. At first, he lived in Tananarive and went to the leper colony for burials (three or four a week) and Sunday Mass. But soon he was granted permission to live permanently among the lepers.
«He's not afraid to touch wounds!»
To obtain urgently needed assistance, Father Beyzym wrote numerous letters to his confreres in Europe and his friends. There can be read: «There is no one at the lepers' side, no doctor, no priest, no nurse, absolutely no one. I am filling all the roles here: chaplain, mailman, sacristan, gardener, doctor. As for clothing, everyone covers himself as best he can, putting on an old sack found in a corner, or something similar. The food is primarily rice, rationed out at one kilo a week, which is just enough not to die of starvation. This is everything they have, no remedy, no bandages to dress the wounds and sores. Nothing... It is difficult to care for the sick here, because in addition to leprosy, they also have syphilis and scabies, and they are full of lice. However, this doesn't surprise me. How can these poor wretches bathe and groom their hair if they don't have fingers anymore, which have fallen off because of their leprosy?... If someone complains of a stomachache, you don't ask: «What did you eat?» but rather «Did you eat? And when?...» I feel sick when I think of the great number of people who spend so much money on their whims and for incomprehensible pleasures, while we have nothing here.»
Another concern made Father Beyzym's heart bleed: «What torments me even more is their moral poverty, a consequence of their material state. They are exposed to a thousand occasions of sin... I look at these little children, who not only have not learned to love God, but don't even know yet that there is a God, while the grown-ups already are teaching them how to offend Him!... I constantly ask the Virgin Mary to have mercy and to help save these poor people as soon as possible... The moment that love for and trust in the Most Blessed Virgin takes root in these poor hearts, everything will be in place and I will be able to be confident about them.»
Father Beyzym's first concern was to keep the lepers from dying of starvation. His long experience as a nurse served him well. He approached these sick and bandaged their wounds, arousing the admiration of witnesses: «When I received a piece of cloth for the first time, and began to bandage a wound on one of them,» he wrote, «they all surrounded me as if it were an extraordinary spectacle. They were saying to one another: 'Look! But look! He's not afraid to touch wounds!' » However, this service required heroic self-sacrifice: «I must remain constantly united to God and be capable of praying always... I have to get used to the bad odor a little, because here you don't smell the fragrance of flowers, but the stench of leprosy... The sight of wounds is not very appealing either. When, after three or four hours of medical treatment, I go out into the fresh air in front of the huts, I come back home, and after washing and disinfecting myself with phenol, I feel that everything I have on still gives off a bad odor... At first, I couldn't look at the wounds, and, after having seen a particularly disgusting sore, I sometimes fainted. Now, I look at my poor patients' sores, I touch them while treating them or giving them Extreme Unction with holy oil, without being upset. To tell you the truth, I feel something in my heart when I tend to the sores, but only because I would prefer to have them all on me, rather than to see them on these poor wretches.»
A manifestation of freedom
Imitating Christ who washed the feet of His disciples, Father Beyzym became a servant. «In today's culture,» writes Pope John Paul II, «the person who serves is considered inferior; but in sacred history the servant is the one called by God to carry out a particular action of salvation and redemption. The servant knows that he has received all he has and is. As a result, he also feels called to place what he has received at the service of others... Service is a completely natural vocation, because human beings are by nature servants, not being masters of their own lives and being, in their turn, in need of the service of others. Service shows that we are free from the intrusiveness of our ego. It shows that we have a responsibility to other people. And service is possible for everyone through gestures that seem small, but which are, in reality, great if they are animated by a sincere love. True servants are humble and know how to be 'useless' (cf. Lk. 17:10). They do not seek egoistic benefits, but expend themselves for others, experiencing in the gift of themselves the joy of working for free» (Message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations, May 11, 2003).
Father Beyzym's tremendous charity aroused complete confidence in his words when he spoke about God, eternal life, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. As a result, after several months, a great number of lepers had requested and received Baptism. Father was deeply grateful to the Blessed Virgin: «I don't know if I will ever be able to suitably thank the Virgin Mary for her protection. I am not speaking of the thousand other graces that she has granted me, but of that of using me to serve the lepers.»
However, Father was aware that he had only a rudimentary knowledge of the Malagasy language. He knew too few words. To improve, he decided in 1901 to spend two months at another nearby post, returning to the colony only on Sundays for Mass. The progress he made allowed him to organize a first retreat. «We have just finished,» he wrote afterwards, «a three-day retreat... according to the method of St. Ignatius: three conferences a day, with examinations of conscience, confessions, Communion... There prevailed among the lepers a silence and contemplation worthy of our most civilized retreatants. I thank the good Mother unceasingly—many of my sick will live and die as true Catholics.»
In fact, during the fourteen years of Father Beyzym's apostolate, not one of his lepers died without having received the Sacrament of the Sick. His apostolic fruitfulness proved the missionary's sufferings were not in vain. In addition to the daily difficulties of his life, he was homesick. «I long,» he wrote to one of his old confreres in Poland, «for my homeland, especially for our house and the infirmary with our kids.» Many missionaries go through these innermost sufferings, which often are known to God alone. «In Sacred Scripture,» writes Pope John Paul II, «there is a strong and clear link between service and redemption, as well as between service and suffering, between Servant and Lamb of God. The Messiah is the Suffering Servant who takes on His shoulders the weight of human sin. He is the lamb led to the slaughter (Is. 53:7) to pay the price of the sins committed by humanity, and thus render to the same humanity the service that it needs most. The Servant is the Lamb who was oppressed, and was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth (Is. 53:7), thus showing an extraordinary power: the power not to react to evil with evil, but to respond to evil with good.
«It is the gentle force of the servant who finds his strength in God and who, therefore, is made by God to be light of the nations and worker of salvation (cf. Is 49:5-6). In a mysterious manner, the vocation to service is invariably a vocation to take part in a most personal way in the ministry of salvation—a partaking that will, among other things, be costly and painful» (Ibid).
The scales fell from my eyes
In spite of Father Beyzym's efforts, the care given the lepers remained quite insufficient. He thus made plans for a hospital to be built. His Superiors approved, on condition that he find the necessary funds himself. The missionary sent letters off in all directions; some were published by the Polish bulletin «Catholic Missions.» For several years, donations came in. After innumerable difficulties which were overcome thanks to a boundless confidence in Divine Providence, Father found a suitable plot of land, in Marana, close to Fianarantsoa, in a remote and healthy area, but about 400 km from the leper colony where he was living. A great trial then awaited him, for he would have to abandon his lepers in Ambahivoraka. He succeeded in obtaining a place for them in the government colony, but his mind wasn't at ease about them. «There,» he wrote, «appeared to me in all its crudeness the moral danger to which everyone, especially the children, will be exposed in the official colony (700 lepers recruited from the dregs of society are locked up there by force and guarded day and night by the police)... I recommended one and all to our Mother of Heaven, crying like a child. And to say that I could do nothing for them!»
He departed in suffering. When he arrived at his destination, in October 1902, the missionary set to work, while at the same time caring for a new group of lepers. The site progressed, little by little. One day, an unexpected event occurred. A leprous woman and two leprous men, exhausted by a long journey on foot, asked to see him. « 'Where do you come from? If you want to be admitted here, you have to show yourselves to the doctor in Fianarantsoa and come back with a certificate.'—'You speak as if you didn't know us,' said the woman. 'But of course, I don't know you.'—'Remember Ambahivoraka, and you will recognize us.' When I heard this, it seemed to me that scales fell from my eyes. I hadn't recognized my fledglings, first because I hadn't seen them for two years, then because of their shabby appearance, and lastly because I did not think they were capable of making such a long journey. You can imagine how my heart beat and how great my joy was at their arrival!... When, after several days, my travelers had rested a little, the courageous woman confessed and received Communion. After that, I gave her as much as I could for the road, blessed her, and sent her to fetch the rest of my dear flotsam.» Several weeks later, the old patients from Ambahivoraka arrived, one after the other. «I welcomed them as if they were my closest relatives.»
But at the same time as these joys, Father received trials which he called splinters from Jesus' Cross. Some people considered his plans too bold, and their objections influenced the local bishop who hesitated to give the necessary authorizations. Then, in governmental circles, there was talk of laicizing all the colonies. But Father Beyzym's confidence in the protection of Mary, Consoler of the afflicted, allowed him to stand firm. The prayer of Saint Ignatius, which he recited several times a day, also helped him greatly: «Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all that I have and possess, You have given it me. To You, Lord, I return it; all is Yours, to dispose of it entirely according to Your will. Give me only Your love and grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.»
A scary faucet
Finally, in 1911, the hospital opened its doors. «This is not a work of man,» wrote Father. «The Immaculate Herself founded this hospital and looks after it.» Taking possession was not made without a degree of disarray. «The first days,» he wrote, «all the lepers moved about at a loss and disoriented... now that all of a sudden they had a house with a floor and a ceiling, beds fitted with sheets, chests of drawers, an image of the Virgin, and a number on everyone's place! Not to mention bowls, cups, lamps. They were looking at each other, unable to believe it... It was laughable the first day, on account of the thousand naiveties that showed how little civilized they still were. When the dinner bell rang, they indeed ran to the refectory, but they didn't know what to do there... One of them turned a faucet and, as the water came out under high pressure, my new civilized man became frightened. Instead of shutting off the faucet, he let go of everything and ran away, crying for help!...»
Fortunately, «at the end of several weeks, the house rules have been imposed, and our house more resembles a monastery than a hospital. The residents observe the separation of men and women, as well as silence at certain hours. No quarrels, or, if bitter words are spoken, peace is made on the spot... Everyone works as much as health permits. Songs and laughter are the order of the day... At present, almost all of them receive Communion every day. In a word, may God allow this to last, because the hospital is an islet of faith in the midst of the ever rising swamp of sin that is the world. And don't think that I am embellishing the picture—it's the absolute truth.»
Towards the most forsaken
The new hospital, equipped with all the necessary sanitary facilities, had 150 beds. Consecrated to Our Lady of Czestochowa, it still exists today and radiates the love and hope that gave birth to it. On the outside, it seemed that Father was bound forever to the field of apostolate among the lepers of Madagascar. But at the bottom of his heart remained an anguish for the salvation of souls that led him to go to the even more forsaken poor. He thought about the prisoners in forced labor gathered on the island of Sakhalin (in the Russian Far East) and spiritually abandoned. He wrote to his Superior: «For some time, the thought of Sakhalin has haunted me, and I have it constantly before my eyes. From what you have seen and heard, my Father, you know that a good many needy men suffer terribly there... Someone could very likely go help these unfortunate ones...»
While waiting for a decision to be made regarding this new apostolate, Father Beyzym redoubled his catechisms and retreats. Very sensitive to the honor given to Jesus in the Eucharist, he gilt the altar and the tabernacle in his chapel. But his health was weakening. He suffered from arteriosclerosis and his body was covered with sores. One day, overcome by violent pain, he had to take to his bed. A religious priest who had contracted leprosy while serving the lepers and who himself would die nine days later, came to administer the last sacraments to him. Finally, on October 2, 1912, Father Beyzym rendered his soul to God. He most likely died of exhaustion and not of leprosy.
«God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4-5)... From the beginning of her existence the Church... has preached the mercy of God. The desire to bring mercy to the neediest led Blessed Jan Beyzym to far-away Madagascar, where, out of love for Christ, he devoted himself to caring for lepers... The charitable work of Blessed Jan Beyzym was an integral component of his fundamental mission: bringing the Gospel to those who do not know it. This is the greatest gift of mercy: bringing people to Christ» (John Paul II, homily for the beatification of Jan Beyzym, August 18, 2002). If few people are called to serve the lepers, we must all attest in concrete terms to the mercy of God. To do that, a « 'creativity in charity' is needed,» continues the Pope; «may this 'creativity' never be lacking when a needy person pleads: Give us this day our daily bread! Thanks to brotherly love, this bread will not be lacking. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Mt. 5:7).»
Let us ask the Most Blessed Virgin Mary to make us, after the example of Blessed Jan Beyzym, missionaries of the mercy of God in the contemporary world.
Dom Antoine Marie osb.