Wednesday, April 17, 2013
St. Benedict Joseph Labre: Fr. Andersen
This post is by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart-St. Louis in Gervais, OR
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Feast Day April 16th
Last year on this day, I was reading the Roman Martyrology and the name of St. Benedict Joseph Labre jumped out at me. I knew nothing about him, but his name was familiar. It turned out that I had a full length biography about him in my bookcase (Agnes de la Gorce. St. Joseph Benedict Labre. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. New York: Sheed and Ward. 1952). So, I read a short account of his life and was captivated. I had to know more. Within two days I had read the entire book and was summarizing it for a Sunday sermon. He had become a good friend of mine and I wanted others to know him too. He might seem like an unlikely friend if you were to see him along the way, but I want to tell you about him and how the love of God was truly made perfect in him. I think he will become dear to your heart too.
St. Benedict Joseph Labré was born in the north of France in 1748. He was the oldest of 15 children and his parents were farmers. He had great potential. He was the most intelligent student in the village school, so his parents decided that it would be worth it to send their eldest son to study for the priesthood. So, at twelve, Benedict went to live with his uncle who was a priest at a neighboring village.
His favorite spot became the library and his favorite book was an old collection of sermons by a French priest who had gone blind. Young Benedict was so taken by these sermons that he began to desire more and more to be a saint. He wanted to give himself completely to God in a life of self-denial.
One night, a visiting priest came to stay and all evening he spoke about his visit to the Abbey of La Grande Trappe. Young Benedict was captivated and from then on, his dream was to become a Trappist monk. Meanwhile, the plague struck the village and Benedict helped his uncle in caring for the sick. His uncle the priest died of the plague. At the age of eighteen, his parents would not give him their blessing to enter the faraway Abbey of La Trappe, but they did agree upon the local Carthusian monastery. When Benedict sought entry, they rejected him due to frail health. But another Carthusian community accepted him and at nineteen, he joyfully entered. A few weeks later, he came home to his parent’s farm. He had experienced a “terrible misery…like no other suffering on earth” (Gorce, 52).
At the age of 21, Benedict left his family convinced that he must try again to enter the monastery. Three months later, he wrote to his parents that the Carthusians found him unsuited to their life and that he had left them. He wrote: “I look on this as a command from God calling me to something more perfect still – they said themselves that it was the hand of God taking me from them. I am therefore setting out for La Trappe, where I have always so longed to go” (cf. p. 66). He begged for their blessing. This would be the fulfillment of his life’s dream. But La Trappe refused to have him. He had not waited long enough since leaving the Carthusians. Impatience was not compatible with the self-denial needed of a monk.
Benedict walked across France for nearly a month to reach another monastery. He knocked on the door of the Abbey of Septfonts and he knelt and begged to enter. At the age of twenty-two, he became Frère Urbain. He suffered a great spiritual desolation there and despaired of God’s love for him. He suffered from scrupulosity and accused himself of sins he had not even committed. In April he fell seriously ill and the superior came to visit him in the monastery infirmary. “Brother Urbain heard these words: ‘My son, God is not calling you to our order.’ …The novice murmured: Fiat voluntas tua [thy will be done]” (Gorce 74).
When he recovered, he decided that he must make a pilgrimage to Rome, to the tombs of the apostles. During this journey, “In a burst of light, he suddenly realised that his vocation was to be a pilgrim” (76-77). His life was not without direction. “With the same total submission as he had brought to the monastic life, he now embraced the career of a pilgrim, as if it were an established way of life” (78). He still believed, however, that after his pilgrimage, he would someday enter a monastery somewhere.
His spirituality was growing away from scrupulosity to serenity by reading from the sermons of Luis of Granada which he carried with him on his journeys by foot across Europe to visit all the major shrines between 1770 and 1777.
Upon visiting Assisi, he stayed with Franciscans and they gave him a rope from the Franciscan habit to wear around his waist. His religious garb became the clothing of a pilgrim. He wore a cloak with the rope tied around his waist, a rosary around his neck, a three-cornered hat, a crucifix, and a wallet in the form of a bag in which he collected holy cards, medals, and other mementos of his pilgrimages. He carried four books with him: a Bible, the Roman Breviary, the Imitation of Christ, and the Sermons of Luis of Grenada. Sometimes he added rocks to make his load heavier as a form of penance.
He was often considered to be a tramp and a beggar, and even children sometimes yelled at him and threw rocks at him. He offered this humiliation up as a sacrifice of love to God. Others recognized his purity of heart and in his many encounters with the sick and the down-hearted, he is remembered as being a source of comfort and even of miraculous healing.
He settled in Rome in 1777. He lived for a time at the Coliseum under the fifth station of the Cross. He slept on ferns and straw there and erected a small chapel where he prayed the breviary in Latin by candlelight. He then made the Way of the Cross by moonlight, extending out his arms in the form of the cross and offering himself to God as a victim to be humiliated, spat upon, scorned; a worm and no man. He never begged for alms, but he received what was given in charity. He took only as much as he absolutely needed and often gave away even that, especially if he saw a mother with children who were hungry.
He took it upon himself to preach truth and goodness and purity to pilgrims, beggars, rich and poor. People remembered him and listened to him. He was known as a saint on the streets of Rome. He sought out the Blessed Sacrament wherever it was exposed for adoration. He had three spiritual directors and confessors in Rome and, although he felt himself unworthy to receive Holy Communion, he did so out of obedience on a weekly basis, but only in the very early morning when the least number of people would see him.
On the Friday before Palm Sunday in 1783, Benedict came to St. Ignatius Church in Rome and was kneeling near the Lady Altar. His confessor, Fr. Marconi “observed a strange radiance about him. …The poor man talked to Father Marconi, and as he listened, he looked at the arms emerging from the sleeves, the arms of a skeleton, with just enough flesh to nourish the vermin that never left them alone. Benedict told his confessor that he was now free of all temptation. Father Marconi knew what that peace meant: it was the prelude to death” (Gorce 184). Benedict, at the age of 35, received absolution and holy Communion on that day. He was then seen on Palm Sunday in many churches, including Santa Croce where he venerated the relics of the Passion. On Holy Monday he was seen at San Ignacio and at the Church of the Holy Apostles. On Holy Tuesday, he was seen at St. Praxedes venerating the pillar at which Christ was scourged.
Holy Wednesday, April 16th, 1783. Benedict could hardly stand. But he took a staff and walked to the Church of the Madonna dei Monti. The people there had a profound respect for him, calling him Il Signor Benedetto. The Passion was read at Mass that day and the people believed that Benedict would expire at the same time as Christ. Benedict made it through the Mass. He received his last Holy Communion and he stumbled and fell on the steps leaving the church. He asked to be put on the ground. “He was still a Trappist in spirit, (and he) remembered that the Trappists always lay on straw and ashes to die” (192). The butcher rushed to care for him and took him to his house. He tried to feed him and care for his wounds. The priest rushed over and gave him Extreme Unction and prayed the prayers of the dying. At nightfall, the bells of Rome began to ring for the praying of the Salve Regina. And at the sound of the bells and the invocation of the Blessed Mother of God, Benedict expired.
On Holy Thursday morning the streets of Rome rang out with the voices of the children proclaiming that a saint was dead. His parents had not heard from him since 1770 and now his name was famous all over Europe as a saint. 130 miracles were attributed to him within a matter of months. That Easter brought many conversions among the people of Rome, especially among beggars who reformed their lives. May this Easter be a time of conversion for us as we consider this holy and humble life of a saint who wished to humble himself living as a monk without a monastery. He wished to please God by offering himself as a pleasing oblation. Let us each do the same in our own way, as God provides for us.