Rev John Paul Kimes
2022 Gala Featured Speaker
Penance, Friendship and Joy:
Finding Molokai in the 21st Century
Written by Rev. John Paul Kimes, 2022 Gala keynote speaker, University of Notre Dame law professor and canon lawyer who heads the historical commission for the cause of Joseph Dutton.
I am not the person in the room who is most familiar with the life of Joseph Dutton. In fact, I am probably one of the least knowledgeable, if I am honest. There are men and women in this room who have devoted great time and effort to come to know Joseph, and know him well. You might say, they have become his friends. That’s silly, you might say; how do you become a friend to a person you’ve never met? You do it the same way you become friends with anyone – you spend time with them. I am just coming to know Joseph, but I can assure you, I hope, someday, to be worthy of calling him my friend. Like all friendships, our growing friendship with Joseph requires that we come to know more about him.
For someone who died nearly 100 years ago, the life of Ira Barnes Dutton, better known by his baptismal name, Joseph, reads as incredibly contemporary. But one of the aspects of Joseph Dutton’s life that is unique to his time, is the fact that he was a genuine man of letters. The number of letters that he composed, and received, despite all the difficulties – financial and practical – of sending and receiving mail in Molokai in the 19th century did not deter him from maintaining and cultivating friendships across the country. For us, it is easier; we send emails and text messages, make video calls or leave voice notes, or post images and words on social media. But the letters Joseph sent and received speak to a different level of commitment in cultivating friendships.
I mention this because, to start this brief reflection, I want to share with you a quote, not from one of Joseph’s own letters, but from one he received. In October 1920, Joseph received a letter from Lucius Pinkham, who had at one time been president of the board of health and even governor of Hawaii. Mr. Pinkham, while thanking Dutton for his most recent letter, noted the following:
So long as you remain at your work, you will be a man of interest to the world…Eminent men step aside from pressing interests, or die, and promptly pass from men’s minds…They rise and fall so rapidly one can hardly retain in mind their names. Men are praised inordinately, and men are maligned to the limit. The world is frightfully unsettled. Entities created by law and governed by it…have so superseded individuals and individual practice and conscience that the human problem seems to almost call for a new creation.
What Lucius Pinkham wrote in 1920, Dutton had already understood; it has only become truer in the intervening 100 years. Today, society raises up men and women and gives them the title of “icon”, only to tear them down, or forget them, from one day to the next.
Pinkham’s pessimistic assessment of the world is certainly hard to argue with, but it does not take into account the fundamental truth that Joseph Dutton had embraced – nothing less than Truth itself, the merciful love of God that came to animate his very existence, such that the praise of the world, or its concerns, became ever less important to this man who devoted his life to the care of the least among us.
"Dutton writes, “It seemed that the restraints of military service and ambition for its responsibilities, once over, left me free, too free; like an unchained animal gone as yet partly wild” (His memoirs, p. 76)."
Here, however, it is easy to misunderstand Dutton’s motivation, and to reduce it to altruism, like Pinkham noted. It could even be seen as running away from the world that Pinkham described. But Joseph Dutton’s own words will not allow us to mistake the real reason he went to Molokai and remained there for decades: penance.
Dutton speaks often in his letters of his past, without ever going into too great detail as to just what his ‘decade of debauchery’ was. We know his marriage failed. We know he came to drink more than he should have. And we know, most importantly, that he came to the fundamental insight that sin had a hold of his life. Dutton writes, “It seemed that the restraints of military service and ambition for its responsibilities, once over, left me free, too free; like an unchained animal gone as yet partly wild” (His memoirs, p. 76).
Here, I think, is the first take-away from Dutton’s life for the modern world. In order to comprehend this first lesson, we must understand what lies at its heart, which is a recognition of the existence of truth.
You see, sin cannot really exist in a world that doesn’t believe in truth, and penance has no place in a world without sin. For more than a millennium, the Catholic Church has connected the ideas of beauty and truth. The cathedrals of the gothic age were masterpieces that spanned the lives of generations of workers, because they believed that their work would participate in the beauty that comes from God, whether the individual worker saw the finished product or not. The artists of the Renaissance believed their works would allow the observer to gaze into the mystery of God’s interaction with mankind and see, in the work of art, the beauty of the truth. Today’s world doesn’t build gothic cathedrals, and rarely is art intended to be anything other than a reflection of the mind of the artist him or herself.
"sin cannot really exist in a world that doesn’t believe in truth, and penance has no place in a world without sin. "
Rather than seek the truth, as one and coherent, eternal and beautiful, our culture speaks of “my truth”, as if truth were contingent on my acceptance of it. This kind of narcissism animates contemporary society. It seeks only the here and the now, captured in the abbreviation YOLO – you only live once – so, live it up!
There is nothing wrong with embracing life and living it to the fullest. As Christians, we believe we are called to do just that; we are called to live a full life, but the fullness of our life comes not from the reckless abandon of responsibility and the number of our experiences. Fullness of life for us, like for Joseph, comes from our gracious response to the invitation to love our neighbor, reflecting in the world the depth of our personal experience of the love Jesus Christ has for us.
Why am I stressing the importance of the truth? Because, without it, the story of Joseph Dutton can be reduced to just one of a nice guy who wanted to be nice and do nice things to those who had less than he did. Which is to reduce Joseph Dutton to a narcissist, at worst, or a secular humanist, at best. He was neither of those things. He was a disciple of Jesus Christ, because he found in the mercy of God the true calling of his life. He searched for the truth, and found it in the teachings of the Catholic Church. That true calling came to him from the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It was this Truth that led Ira to convert to the Catholic faith and in his conversion, he understood the harm caused by his sin, which led him to the experience of the overwhelming power of God’s mercy, both of which led him to the singular conviction that he must spend the rest of his life doing penance.
Now, the singular conviction of living out a life of penance for past sins sounds a bit extreme to our ears. For Joseph Dutton, it was not extreme at all, but a natural response to God’s merciful love. Here is where I have to say that Dutton’s recognition of his sin did not lead him to pessimism or despair. Rather, Dutton speaks about this desire to do penance as growing on him, more and more – he says, “with a forcefulness that is difficult to explain.” Catholics recognize that, as St. Paul reminds us, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20). To recognize that moment of grace that comes to us in repentance, we must first recognize our sin for what it is.
"He was a disciple of Jesus Christ, because he found in the mercy of God the true calling of his life. He searched for the truth, and found it in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
"It was justice that Dutton sought in his penance, to right the wrongs of his past life, motivated not by shame, but by the experience of God’s merciful love."
This isn’t a pessimistic outlook on life; it is just honest. I screw up, all the time. But am I humble enough to admit that? If I don’t recognize that the truth exists, and exists outside of me and my perspective, ultimately, I lack the objective basis by which my actions can be understood to be wrong. Without talking too much like a lawyer, which is what I normally get paid to do! let me add that without objective truth, there can be no justice. It was justice that Dutton sought in his penance, to right the wrongs of his past life, motivated not by shame, but by the experience of God’s merciful love.
Penance is a powerful thing, because it means that our hearts are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which pushes us past our shame, our narcissism, our ability to overlook our own foibles, and brings us to a recognition of the sins we have committed. Over and over again in his letters, Joseph speaks of his calling to do penance, of his vow to do penance. That inexplicable urge to spend the rest of his life doing penance for what occurred in his past is the work of the Holy Spirit on Joseph Dutton, and Joseph Dutton’s response to that invitation to become ever more a friend of Jesus Christ, by doing his will (cf. John 15:14). God called Joseph, and Joseph answered, even if it took him a while to figure out exactly what God was calling him to.
And here is the second insight that Joseph has to offer our contemporary world- consistency. After his conversion at the age of 40, and the recognition that he was called to lead a penitential life, Joseph Dutton left for the strict monastic life of the Trappists, joining their monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky. There, he found a life of structure and prayer, indeed, a life of penance. He could have stayed there and lived a holy life. Or, when he realized that he was not being called by God to serve him in the solitude of the monastery, he could have said ‘Well, I gave it a shot. I tried this penance thing. Not for me. Time to move on.’ Joseph did neither of those things, because in his life of penance, he found true joy.
He kept his heart open to the calling of God, and he kept searching. He found the true nature of his calling in the most peculiar of ways – in the reading room of a religious house in New Orleans, he came across a magazine that spoke ever so briefly about the work of Damien with the sick on Molokai.
"He kept his heart open to the calling of God, and he kept searching."
"Joseph teaches us about the power of sin, the need for truth, a genuine understanding of conversion and penance, the need for consistency in all of this,"
The importance of a Christian ideal of friendship is fundamental in understanding Joseph’s life. He read a magazine article in New Orleans and did what he could – without Google, or the internet, or anything of the sort – he began to ask questions: who knows more? who can tell me more? where can I learn more? what do they on Molokai? who is there? why are they there? how can I help? Without the conviction that he had been called by God to penance, Joseph would have never asked those questions; and, wihout the help of others, those questions would have remained unanswered. This search took Joseph to South Ben, Indiana, a very small town with, at the time, a very small school, called Notre Dame. With his characteristic thoroughness and determination, Joseph set off for Molokai, and arrived in Hawaii essentially unannounced.
Joseph teaches us about the power of sin, the need for truth, a genuine understanding of conversion and penance, the need for consistency in all of this, and he does so, not through stern words or a frumpy attitude, but with a smile. With joy.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis offered a few, powerful words on the topic of joy. Reflecting on the disciples encounter with Christ after the resurrection, the Gospel of Luke contains a unique phrase about the doubts the disciples had when they saw the risen Lord: they did not believe because of their joy (Lk 24:41). This leads the Pope to a reflection on what joy actually is. St. Paul speaks over and over again of being filled with joy. Jesus wishes that his disciples joy might be complete. But what is joy? Pope Francis writes: “Joy is not the consequence of emotions that emerges because of something marvelous…no, it is something more. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit we cannot have joy…It is the fullness of consolation, the fullness of the Lord’s presence” (Homily at Santa Marta, Pope Francis, 16 April 2020).
This joy is what Joseph experienced, when he found his calling to do penance by serving the needs of those that had been ostracized by society. So often at the end of his letters, Joseph would sign them “joyfully yours.” This joy animated his life that included tasks that you and I can barely imagine – how dangerous, how meticulous, and, yes, how gross was the work that he rose to do, daily, with joy, washing and dressing the open wounds of the lepers of Molokai. He did this because in answering the Lord’s call to do penance, he found the fullness of the Lord’s presence among the least of his brothers and sisters, those cast off by society, living on the margins.
"So often at the end of his letters, Joseph would sign them “joyfully yours.”
"Dutton’s joyful service to the least among us shows us where the true meaning of life is to be found – in being called a friend by Christ, because we do his will."
So many in our society today are listless, restless, searching for something more than what the narcissism of the world tells them is the highest good – their own happiness, which, unlike joy, is the fleeting consequence of emotions when something we want to happen, does. Our society, our world, finds its highest good in the response of others to the curated perception of our lives – what we present to the world on social media, how many likes or re-tweets we received on our latest post – not who and what we actually are. Dutton’s joyful service to the least among us shows us where the true meaning of life is to be found – in being called a friend by Christ, because we do his will. And it does not need to be in grand gestures. Joseph often reminded people that they could find their place wherever they are, and here he was reflecting the words of the gospel. In describing judgement on the last day, Jesus tells the righteous and the just, that they will inherit the kingdom made by his father before the foundation of the world. And they ask him, “Lord, when did we see you naked, and clothe you, or hungry, and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” And he answers them, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did to one of these least of my brothers, you did for me” (cf. Matt 25:31-40).
How do we find that same joy that animated Joseph Dutton’s life for more than 40 years on Molokai? How do we find our Molokai today? And how do we help those around us find theirs? To find our Molokai we must first search for it, and to seek it we must be open to the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13).
Like Joseph, we must first accept that there is truth, and that Truth has a name – Jesus Christ. For many of us, that Truth will point out our failings and help us recognize our sins. We must face our sins and not run from them; the courage of Joseph in facing his sins teaches us all the way toward joy. It was his conviction of God’s merciful and forgiving love that allowed Joseph Dutton to face his ‘decade of decadence’ and change his life. To find out Molokai, we must also find that courage and face our sins and seek God’s mercy for our failings.
"We must face our sins and not run from them; the courage of Joseph in facing his sins teaches us all the way toward joy. "
"In these small gestures, our Molokai will open up before our eyes and the Holy Spirit will work more deeply in our hearts, and we will begin to see that in the service to those around us, we are living out the Gospel."
For most of us, the recognition of our sin will not lead us half-way around the world, to dedicate our lives in a conscious, almost singular way to doing penance. But even if it doesn’t, it can, and will, lead us to serve our brothers and sisters, to care for their needs, as Christ’s love commands us. We need not be overwhelmed by the example of Joseph, our new friend. Rather, we can follow his example also in small ways.
In volunteering an hour to help a child learn to read. Or an hour of our week at a homeless shelter, or in a soup kitchen. Or an hour of visiting the sick in the hospital and bringing laughter and joy. Or an hour visiting the elderly and the shut-ins, to bring them companionship. In these small gestures, our Molokai will open up before our eyes and the Holy Spirit will work more deeply in our hearts, and we will begin to see that in the service to those around us, we are living out the Gospel. We will begin to experience that joy which is the fullness of consolation, of the Lord’s presence. We will find ourselves living our best life, that fullness of life that only Christ can give. The fullness of life that Joseph found in penance, serving his brothers and sisters on Molokai.
Joseph Dutton’s should be more than an inspiring story. It should be a lesson we learn, and one we share with others. His life shows us the way to find our Molokai. His example teaches us: we must be open to the Holy Spirit; we must be consistent in our response; we must seek only to serve, because in doing so we do God’s will and become friends of Jesus Christ. And in this, we find something the world can never give us – more than happiness; more than riches; more than fame; only in finding our Molokai can we find true joy that can never be taken away.
For those of us who have heard the story of Joseph Dutton, who find it to be inspiring, who want to know more about him and to become his friend, finding our Molokai is not an option. Finding our Molokai, today, is what we are called to do.
"only in finding our Molokai can we find true joy that can never be taken away."