Pope Paul has approved a decree citing the "heroic virtues" of Father Damien in a step toward possible canonization for the 19th century Belgian missionary who labored among lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

The cause for possible proclamation of sainthood for the Apostle of the Lepers, as Father Mamien is known, was introduced at the Vatican in 1955.

The Pope's decree was issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which had investigated the life and virtues of Father Damien. The congregation declared that the "heroic" nature of Father Damien's virtues has been amply demonstrated and bestowed on him the title of "venerable."

Father Damien - Joseph de Veuster - was born at Tremeloo, Belgium, on Jan 3. 1840. and died a leper on thee island of Molokai in 1889.

For nine years, he worked as an evangelist. In 1873, at his own request, he was sent to Molokai, then a frightful settlement where lepers of the other Hawaiian Islands were banished to fend for themselves and remain segregated for life.

Father Damien doctored and nursed his flock, shared food bowls and lent them his own pipe to smoke. He was 45 years old when, one day in 1885, he opened a Sermon with a new phrase. Instead of the usual, "My brethren." he said: "We lepers. . . " And his people knew he had contracted the dread disease.