The Patron Saint of the Congregation
Our devotion to St. Benedict Joseph Labre as the spiritual patron and protector of our Congregation, takes its bearing from the following testimony of our Father Founder, Fr. Grittani: I was running frantically for Rome in a distant August, looking for a life of our titular saint in the Catholic bookshops of the capital. The vendors, questioned if they had a life of St. Benedict, responded with a smile of compassion and the usual phrase: it is not a saint of fashion. My first impression: there is fashion also in holiness. But why? Eh! Reverend, know that St. Benedict Joseph Labre was a beggar, beggars are rather dirty, in these times so refined a clean little saint does not give rise to sympathy. In my opinion: yet he is as holy as St. Louis of France, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and many other high lineage saints; indeed these saints were the greatest venerators of the rags and miseries of the poor.
I went to St. Maria dei Monti, the Church of Rome, which for 6 years saw St. Benedict Joseph Labre begging on her doorstep, to get news of my nice saint and they replied: we do not know anything else than that he died in a little house nearby; maybe you'll have some news there. I went to the nearby house and asked an Italian officer who does not even know what he says. My third impression: one century after the canonization of this “obscure or rather abnormal Saint”, is that one could lose track of a saint because of fashion. Then with a firm decision, I said: “this saint will return to make his influence felt in its refined, perfumed and fashionable times; he will be the smiling saint of our times, in our Puglia, to the most neglected class of people who are invisible to refined and perfumed souls, to the poor of Puglia. He will be the Saint of the Opera who, under his name and with his help, will give back to the more than two thousand poor beggars of Puglia the smile and caress of God.”
Disappointments sometimes create the strongest decisions and so it was for us. St. Benedict Joseph Labre lives and triumphs in the Opera Pugliese of our Institute even with his rags, “because it is not the rags of the body that sucks. It is the rag of a soul in sin that sucks, and all the fragrances of the 'colony and of the blue countess' cannot buffer the cadaveric stench that comes out of the pores of the sinful soul. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, new Job, who has sanctified himself in the temptation of a dunghill, teaches the Poor and the Rich of Puglia, that holiness has deep roots in the substantial soil of humanity, develops among the thorns of self-denial and finally, triumphs at the unfolding of a tomb, just as in St. Benedict Joseph Labre" (Am 3, 16-04-1944).
St. Benedict Joseph Labre: The Inspiration for our Missionary Apostolate
St Benedict Joseph Labre is the Patron Saint of beggars and the homeless. Born in Boulogne, France, he spent most of his life as a beggar in Rome.
Benedict was born in 1748 near Boulogne in France, the eldest of fifteen children. His parents were respectable, held in high regard by all who knew them. There were also some priests on both sides of the family. From an early age, he too was attracted by the spiritual life and told his parents that he wished to join the La Trappe monastery, which was a more austere branch of the Cistercians. His parents were against such a step because of the severity of the rule and Benedict was obedient in the end to their wishes. In time, he felt they would come round to his way of thinking.
At this time, Benedict was particularly close to one of his uncles who was a priest. Fr. Francis was a director and confidante to the young man. However, in the summer of 1766 there was a fierce epidemic in the area. Both men were fully occupied bringing practical help and spiritual succour to all who were afflicted by the disease. Sadly, because of his exertions, Francis died and Benedict had lost a friend and advisor.
St Benedict returned to his earlier idea of entering the Trappist community, but this time was refused because of his youthful age. He was likewise, refused by a series of other religious communities. Thus discouraged, he discerned that his true vocation was to seek a cloister within the world. Accordingly, he set off by foot on a pilgrimage that lasted several years, wandering thousands of miles across Europe and taking in many of the principal shrines and churches. He dressed in rags and never bathed. This certainly discouraged human contact and thus contributed to the prayerful isolation, which he relished. At the same time, he declined to beg, though passers-by often were moved to give him alms. When food was not offered he simply lived off what he might find at the side of the road.
His appearance was as likely to evoke contempt as pity, and he was indeed frequently harassed. Nevertheless, Benedict accepted all this in a spirit of penance. When a priest in the confessional once asked him if he had ever studied theology, Benedict replied ‘I Father? I am only a poor beggar’. Those who were able to see beneath his dishevelled appearance – including eventually his confessor – recognised the saint in their midst.
Eventually, Benedict settled in Rome, where he spent his nights sleeping in the ruins of the Colosseum, where many of the early Christians had been martyred. His days he spent praying in many of the beautiful Churches, which adorned the eternal city. When his health began to fail, he consented to sleep in a hospice for the destitute. However, this belated concession to human frailty could not reverse the damage done to his health. At the age of 35, he collapsed on the steps of a church and was carried to a nearby house. There he died on April 16th, 1783.
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