NOTICE: I am a practicing Catholic, active and in good-standing with my local parish, who professes faith and loyalty to the Church. This ministry - my "little work" - is strictly a personal expression of that faith and loyalty, and not an officially recognized ministry in the Diocese of Honolulu. ~ Peter

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Saint of the Month - April 2018: Saint Benedict Joseph Labre

St. Benedict Joseph Labre
A Blessed Fool for Christ ~ Feast: April 16

An oil portrait of St. Benedict Joseph Labre,
reportedly painted from life while he was rapt
in ecstasy before an image of the Virgin Mary.
If you've ever encountered a homeless person up close and, through no deliberate fault of your own, was repelled by his/her appearance and smell, then you have a pretty good idea of what it would have been like to have met this Saint in person.  For you see - Benedict Joseph Labre was homeless for a great part of his life - a voluntary vagabond for Christ - and although his outer appearance generally evoked aversion, those who came to know him were later drawn to the immense radiance of his beautiful spirit.

Benedict Joseph hailed from the village of Amettes, France, where he was born on March 25, 1748; the oldest child of 15 children born to a successful shopkeeper.  As a child he was taken in by a priest-uncle who saw to his education in the hopes that he would aspire to the priesthood, himself.  Plans were somewhat derailed when at the age of 18 an epidemic broke out in the region, which claimed his uncle who ministered to the afflicted.

What followed next for our protagonist was, in summary, a series of attempts to enter into religious life.  He was at first admitted by the Trappists but then discharged as unsuited for their rigorous lifestyle; then the Carthusian Order was tried and, when that didn't work out, the Cistercians were applied to twice. In all cases he was judged too frail; lacking in education; not suited for communal life; and even became seriously ill at the last monastery he was at due to his excessive self-mortification.  At this point, I can easily imagine the young Benedict Joseph being morally deflated by all the rejection he went through, if not for some sort of personal epiphany he had, which filled him with the unusual desire to "abandon his country, his parents, and whatever is flattering in the world to lead a new sort of life, a life most painful, most penitential, not in a wilderness nor in a cloister, but in the midst of the world, devoutly visiting as a pilgrim the famous places of Christian devotion."

Starting in circa 1773, after first becoming a Third Order Franciscan, Benedict Joseph set off from France to Rome on pilgrimage.  If I recall correctly, he travelled on foot wearing just a long coat and the one set of clothes and pair of sandles he was wearing; a crucifix and two rosaries; and a travel bag with a Bible and prayer books.  He took no money with him and slept out in the open fields or wherever he managed to find shelter from the elements.  Furthermore, he consciously spoke very little and it appears he never actively begged, but accepted whatever alms - money and/or food - that was placed in his hands that would suffice him for a day; anything more that was given him was promptly shared with others in the same predicament or even less fortunate than he was.

A life-sized sculpture of the Saint in peaceful repose, as found in the room of the home where
he died (now a chapel) behind the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti in Rome, Italy.

After his initial visit to Rome, Benedict Joseph's journeys did not end there - he continued on to other famous holy sites in various European countries: Italy (Assisi, Bari, Loreto, Naples, Rome, etc.), Spain (Santiago de Compostela), Germany, and Switzerland (Einsielden), among many other shrines.  He traveled in the same manner; practicing the same spirit of self-denial and basically being homeless for the rest of his life.  It didn't take long for him to take on his characteristic appearance of being disheveled; dressed in tattered clothes; afflicted with skin lesions and lice; and smelling rather repugnant (one of his last confessors wrote about the atrocious body odor he emitted).

Benedict Joseph eventually settled in Rome where he lived in the streets under the shadow of the famed Colosseum.  He spent his days routinely frequenting the holy basilicas, as well as the smaller churches where the Forty Hours Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament were being held.  The local populace quickly became familiar with the sight of him and, after initially viewing him with ridicule and disdain, they slowly came to recognize his innate sanctity and revered him; affectionately referring to Benedict Joseph as the "Beggar of Rome" or the "Saint of the Forty Hours" because of his profound devotion to the Eucharist.

The wax death mask of the Saint, made
shortly after he died that captures his very
fine facial features.
Not surprisingly, remarkable signs were also manifested that gave clear indication to the Romans as to the greatness of the soul living humbly in their midst.  Among Benedict Joseph's reported mystical charisms were the gifts of Ecstasy, Levitation, Healing, and BilocationAlmost always, during Eucharistic Adoration or after receiving Holy Communion, he would fall into ecstasy for hours at a time. Sometimes his sublime ecstasies were accompanied by levitation and transfiguration, and it became common for the priests and laity to see him immobile, elevated several feet in the air while surrounded by a brilliant light after Mass. On other occasions, although chronically ill, himself, he cured many sick-poor through his prayer and blessing on their behalf.  Still, at other times, bread mysteriously multiplied in his hands so as to be able to feed other homeless people and the poor, along with himself.

The holy beggar died on April 16, 1783, at the young age of 35.  After praying in the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti, he collapsed outside in the street and was taken to a nearby house despite his weak protests.  He peacefully died soon after, worn out by the effects of his extreme privation and was honorably buried in the same church.  The crowd that gathered at his funeral was so big, police and soldiers were employed to keep the order, as people surged forward in their attempts to get close to his body, which showed no signs of death or rigor mortis.  

Within 3 months of his untimely death, over 130 miraculous cures attributed to Benedict Joseph Labre's direct intercession were recorded by his regular confessor.  His fame of sanctity eventually spread outside of Rome, prompting Church authorities to open his Cause for Sainthood - he was canonized in December 1881 and is now honored with a feast on April 16th, the anniversary of his death.  May he pray for, and especially assist, those souls undergoing the trial of homelessness in our world today... as well as, help us, who are better off, to view their plight through more compassionate eyes.

A Prayer to St. Joseph Benedict Labre

St. Benedict Joseph, beloved of God, 
lead us, poor travelers on this earth, 
along thy pilgrim way to God; 
shield us from all occasions of lust and pride, 
that we may wear the garment of humility 
in the sight of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, 
and that we may be received into
His everlasting kingdom. 

Merciful Jesus, Who didst, 
by the life of Thy servant Benedict Joseph, 
show Thy love for the very least of this world, 
grant to us, we beseech Thee, 
the requests by which the Holy Mendicant 
asks in our behalf 
knowing that he deserves to obtain for us 
only those things that would lead us to Thee, 
through Thy Holy Poverty on earth 
and Thy Divine Labours.

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