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Catholic Heroes… St. Benedict Joseph Labre

May 3, 2022 saints No Comments


Like so many brilliant souls who shine in the world but a short time, St. Benedict Joseph Labre burnt brightly and intensely, before falling asleep in the Year of Our Lord 1783, at the mere age of 35.
Born one of 15 children to a French family in the Diocese of Boulogne-sur-Mer, at 12 he went to study with his uncle and godfather, Fr. Francis Joseph Labre, a parish priest. (Benedict had six priests in the family!). As Benedict was enraptured by tales of the saints and Holy Scripture, Benedict’s uncle had a hard time impressing on him the importance of Latin and the other subjects needed to achieve Holy Orders. Eventually he would become quite proficient in subjects like Latin, chant, and philosophy. Yet the future St. Benedict would find his own way to sanctity, one entirely of his own making, which no one could have foretold.
A cholera epidemic hit. Uncle and nephew were caring for the sick and dying and the curé was among the dead. Cholera is caused by bacteria that kill about half of those left untreated. It attacks through patients’ food or water. In the 1700s there was no known cause or treatment, and to have undertaken nursing cholera patients was not unlike nursing those with the plague — a brave task in that it risked death. Perhaps Benedict’s willingness was a signal of his utter gift of self in the years to come.
Young Benedict returned to his family on the death of his uncle. His aim had become to seek out the most austere religious order he could find. When he turned 18, his family finally acquiesced and he walked to La Trappe, 60 miles — a long distance in the eighteenth century. They told him he was too young. He turned to the Carthusians. Then the Cistercians. The latter two allowed him to enter and make a trial at the religious life, but he was not permitted to join.
Butler’s Lives says that in his eccentricity he was poorly suited for religious life, particularly as living in a cell affected his spirits badly. In fact, he showed signs of what today is interpreted as possibly depression.
So, at age 22 he left, assuming God knew best, and he decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. On the journey he met the father of the Curé of Ars. He lived off alms. And after crossing into Italy, he also wrote to his parents — the last time he would contact them. He was still intending to try and enter an Italian order next, but instead he discovered his unique call to living a life of perfection.
This he did by constantly going on pilgrimage to churches and living, as just said, a life of perfection while doing so. He was a sort of St. Francis without the order. When he reached a church, looking like the homeless beggar he was, he would engage in periods of prayer. Benedict would spend entire days at a time praying before the crucifix.
When he felt it was time to go on, he would embark on another trip, sleeping in the open, in his horribly bedraggled clothing. His only possessions were a couple of prayerbooks and as for alms, he did not beg for them. If they were offered, he would acknowledge them, but if he saw someone in greater need, he would pass them on. The same if he was given any money. Once he was beaten for giving away alms. The man who struck the saint, after Benedict’s death, repented of his action and left the cane at the saint’s church, Rome’s St. Maria dei Monti. Benedict desired mortification of the flesh. If he was accused of being a thief, as happened on at least one occasion, unjustly, it was more mortification to offer to God. If he was hungry and there was no food available, he would pick up anything to eat, fruit peels to old celery, even taking scraps from garbage heaps.
It is said that he visited shrines in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, including those at Loreto, Assisi, Bari, and Compostela. But after age 26 he opted to stay in Rome except for an annual visit to Loreto; perhaps the journeys were taking too great a toll on his body. He slept in the colosseum and the locals called him the “saint of the 40 hours” — because he could be found wherever the devotion was currently held. As time progressed, he started having to sleep indoors at residences for homeless men, but he would take his food last. His biographer, Fr. Marconi, said the future saint spoke of having three hearts: one for God, one for himself, and one for his neighbor.
He said, “The second heart must be faithful, generous, and full of love and inflamed with love for our neighbor,” including praying for the conversion of the living, along with the Poor Souls.
A number of those writing about Benedict state early on that he suffered from a spiritual darkness and his confessor even stated at one point that he “feared for his reason.” According to a prayer guild named for him, modern interpretations suggest he likely suffered from depression, something that would not have been known or understood in his lifetime. He was apparently healed from this cross when he left the final monastery and determined to spend his life on pilgrimages and prayer.
Benedict was also the namesake of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York City, an order that works with the poor. With a degree in psychology from Columbia, along with his religious degrees, during his lifetime, he frequently named Fr. Benedict Labre as an intercessor for anyone suffering any time from mental illness. (I served as the producer for his live show for the first six years on the year, and shows concerning depression resounded greatly with the public.)
St. Benedict Labre had knee swelling and tumors of some sort. Perhaps this was the result of days and days spent upon them in prayer. He was overheard often asking God, “Lord, have mercy on me!”
Then he caught a bad cold near the start of Easter week in 1753. When he could no longer participate in devotions, it became clear he was dying. After receiving the sacraments, he passed away on a Lenten evening and many hearing of it called out in the streets, “The saint is dead!”
As he could not be buried on Maundy Thursday, he was left above ground four days. His body showed no sign of putrefaction and was visited by scores of people. Many miracles are associated with him and he was canonized a century later, his feast being April 16.
Today in addition to being an intercessor for those with mental illness, he is a patron saint for beggars and the homeless. But are we not all beggars before God?
There must be thousands of mental illnesses of varying degrees, and for these, why not turn to Fr. Benedict Labre? Mother Teresa likened mental crosses to Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Even severe depression can be a heavy weight, a horrible darkness, a pain that hurts horribly like any physical pain, only the patient cannot point to a spot and say, “It hurts here.” For those who may still feel shame at a mental diagnosis, stop. As a psychologist, Fr. Groeschel — who knew such illnesses are not about willpower, but a physical ailment — always started his advice by saying, “Take your medicine!” This was immediately followed by the phrase, “Let’s pray.”
Let us remember that any illness is a cross, a spiritual struggle that can bring us to Heaven’s door. And let us pray to St. Benedict Labre as well as Fr. Benedict Groeschel for their holy example in today’s confused and often lonely COVID world.

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