ST BENEDICT JOSEPH LABRE, CONFESSOR—1748-1783
Feast: April 16
Our Saviour's prophetic words, "For the poor you have always with you" (St. Mark xiv. 7), have often been forcibly brought home to each succeeding generation by scenes and incidents, many of them not wanting the element of the dramatic. The poor, as the chief of the material treasures of the Church—a similitude which so enraged the Prefect of pagan Rome under Valerian against St. Lawrence—is one of these, and all through the ages the work of aiding and consoling the needy, has been regarded as one of the noblest of the deeds of mercy, as it is, doubtless, one of the most picturesque. The presence of poor people in such numbers in Catholic Churches has long been remarked, and, indeed, their permanent absence would make many of the better-off section of the congregation think that there was something wrong. Their presence is a constant reminder of the divine prophecy referred to, and also of that second statement from the same holy source: "The poor have the Gospel preached unto them" (St. Matt. xi. 5). It is most fitting, therefore, that this never-ending evidence of our poor mendicant brethren, as such, should be represented among the canonized Saints of the Church. Of course, all the Saints practiced poverty in spirit, but in St. Benedict Joseph Labre, whom we are now about to consider, we have a concrete representative of the poor who traditionally crowd the entrances of the churches, and upon whom the alms of the charitable are bestowed.
Like so many of those who have been raised to the altar in the last two centuries, St. Benedict Joseph was French. He was born at Amettes near Boulogne, 26th March, 1748, being the eldest of fifteen children of Jean Baptist Labre, a small shopkeeper, and his wife, Anne Grandsire.
Young Benedict Joseph, like the rest of his brothers and sisters, probably received the rudiments of his education partly at home and partly at the parish school, one of the thousands of excellent parochial schools which made the France of Pre-Revolution days perhaps the best instructed country in the world. As a boy, Benedict Joseph, though very amiable, was already remarkable for seriousness of character. He practiced to an eminent degree those habits of self-restraint, which ascetical writers term "mortification "—that constant repression of the lower man which is the almost certain presage of a life of distinguished sanctity. Joined to this was a great horror of all that was positively wrong or whatever led up to it. As all this pointed to a probable religious vocation, young Labre was sent at the age of twelve to commence classical study under his paternal uncle, the Abbe Francis Joseph Labre, who was Cure, or parish priest of Erin. It has been represented in some quarters that Benedict Joseph was little better than a devout dolt, who was simply incapable of acquiring higher instruction. This is entirely incorrect. The future pilgrim-saint was both a diligent and intelligent student, and his Latin reading, after the elements of the grammar were mastered, embraced the well-known "Historia Sacra" and the usual "Excerpta" from the various classical authors read, then as now, in schools. To this was added a course of history, the ancient portion, no doubt, from Rollin's famous work which, in the original or translations, taught the annals of Greece and Rome to half the world; including Frederick the Great. But though no dunce, Benedict Joseph was no lover of mere learning as such. A close reader all his life of the Imitation of Christ, he had even at this early stage learned thoroughly the meaning of such passages as, "Woe to them who inquire of men after; many curious things; and are little curious of the way to serve Me!" (Bk. iii., ch. 43). His yearning for solitude, ardent love of austerity, and habitual union with God, made the hours spent in the acquisition of purely secular knowledge appear a sheer waste of both time and opportunity. Joined to this desire for austere personal holiness, was also an abounding charity for his neighbour's spiritual and temporal welfare. He assisted his uncle, as far as he was competent to do so, in the work of the parish, teaching the children their Catechism, reading to the sick and diffusing throughout the peasant families of the place that "atmosphere" of the Faith which is so powerful a preservative of religion. The people loved and venerated the holy youth, and the Princess de Croy—member of one of the most illustrious families of Pre-Revolution France—used to style him, "Mon petit Cure." Young Labre's zeal was conspicuously shown during the plague that devastated Erin and district, and when his uncle, the Abbe Labre, died, a martyr of charity during the infection, the nephew went to live with another uncle, the Abbe Vincent. This holy priest, whose life resembled that of the St. Cure d'Ars in the succeeding century, was a man after Benedict Joseph's own heart. The pair shared a miserable living-room and the roughest fare, giving all that was best in the matter of food and drink to the poor. Meanwhile, our Saint was reaching man's estate, and it was necessary for him to decide upon some vocation, either the cloister or the secular priesthood. His own predilection had been the severe Order of La Trappe, but in deference to the wishes of his parents, who feared that such a rigorous rule would prove too hard for their somewhat delicate son, he chose the Carthusians, but without success. He then applied to the Trappists at Neuville, and was told to study logic and plain chant before seeking for admission. This he did with but small progress, but in spite of this, was, after the prescribed period, accepted as a novice together with a friend. Benedict Joseph performed all the obligations of his new "life" with the greatest exactitude, but the growth of scruples and the increasing manifestation of a certain want of fitness for regular religious life, convinced his superiors that he had no vocation, and be left the monastery where he was already regarded as "a saint," though of a different type of sanctity from that laid down by the rule of La Trappe.
It is just at this period of Benedict Joseph Labre's extraordinary career, that those who aspire to write his biography, however brief and imperfect, find themselves confronted by the greatest difficulties in the matter of accounting for the almost unique phenomenon afforded by his subsequent life. Here was a young man of astonishing holiness, having no suitability for secular pursuits of any sort, yet not adapted, apparently, for either the priesthood, or any of the religious orders. "The Spirit," however, "breatheth where He will" (St. John iii. 8), and, doubtless, even before be got his kindly demission from La Trappe, Labre's choice was irrevocably made. The race of "vagrom men" is not habitually regarded over here with general favour, though, be it remembered, it is the so-called Reformation that has chiefly impressed the traditional dark stigma on the wandering class. The poor and unfortunate, so ruthlessly cast into abject wretchedness by the loss of the ever-friendly Abbeys and Priories, were naturally viewed by the greedy, upstart robbers of the monastic lands as a constant reminder of their own villainy, and of the awful social misery it had entailed. Hence, the genial laws of the whipping-post, fetters and branding irons of Edward VI's time, and the only few degrees milder enactments of later reigns. But over a large part of the Continent, at least, until the time of the Revolution, the needy wayfarer was generally considered as a representative of "God's poor," to be helped and comforted as dear Oliver Goldsmith found in his romantic, penniless journeyings through France and Italy, 1754-56. So Benedict Joseph's resolution was to become a " tramp," not as a means of lazy, aimless wandering and low self-indulgence, but to travel on foot from shrine to shrine as a pilgrim of eternity, edifying the devout by his piety, and shaming the selfish and luxurious by his constant and wonderful humility and mortifications. For some eight years (1770-1778?) this extraordinary rover in the cause of religion, traversed most of South-west Europe. His first visits were to Loretto and Rome, and he made it his custom to visit "beautiful Rome;" as he called the Eternal City, every year. It was at the Church of St. Romuald at Fabriano that Benedict Joseph returned to the doubtless, astonished Sacristan half the dole given him, with the words: 'It is too much! Poor people ought to live by the alms they procure daily!" This was his invariable rule, and when some charitable gift exceeded, as he thought, what was necessary for his own slender wants, he always gave the greater part of it to someone whom he considered worse off than himself. In such estimation did this wholly remarkable pilgrim come to be held that the people of the various towns and localities periodically visited by him, looked for his return as a much expected annual event. At Bari, the townsfolk rose up against a graceless fellow who insulted "their pilgrim," and at Compostella, equal respect was shown to the "pelegrino santo." Labre did not fail to visit "Paray-le-Monial," already famous as the cradle of the more modern devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the Chapel where St. Margaret Mary had received her consoling visions and messages, soon ranked in his regard with Loretto, Assisi, and other sacred shrines. It was probably while journeying on one occasion to Paray that St. Benedict Joseph was entertained at a farmhouse near Lyons, by a certain worthy farmer, Matthieu Vianney, and Marie Baluze, his wife, and in the room of the house where the holy wanderer passed the night, the future St. Cute d'Ars was born, 8th May, 1786, some three years after Benedict Joseph had passed to his reward.
But if the Saint had his earthly consolation in the shape of much kindness and respect, he had, of course, his trials. The life he had chosen with its constant exposure to the elements, its hunger and thirst and weariness, was all a form of the "cross" to be daily reckoned with, and to these were added occasionally the sufferings arising from men. At Moulins, in France, he was imprisoned for a while under suspicion of a share in a robbery that had occurred in the district, and then his half-ragged and generally odd appearance often exposed him to both ridicule and even ill-usage. He usually wore what had once been a Trappist's habit, but which, in time, became a mere "thing of shreds and patches," and to this was added an old cloak and girdle. A rosary around his neck, and a wallet containing a few necessaries and some books, such as the Breviary and the Imitation of Christ, completed the bizarre outfit of this strange-looking traveller. His Chinese-like features, tall emaciated frame, and long delicate hands, were remarkable. But jibe and jeer, or even praise were lost on one who lived in a continual union with God, and whose haunting fear seems to have been that he might not be included among the "fewness of the elect."1
About 1778, Benedict Joseph went to live permanently in Rome, then under the beneficent rule of the large-hearted and splendid-looking Pius VI. The Romans, while praising the museums and admiring the superb collections of medals and antiquities therein-all owing to the antiquarian zeal and public spirit of the Pope-were grumbling much at the increase of taxation, owing to the cost of these and also the draining of a large part of the Pontine Marshes, then in progress. "Money, the Dead, and Cardinals" are proverbially objects of affection or admiration with the Italians. Touch any of these and a social sirocco is almost certain to arise. But Benedict Joseph took little account of the then simmering discontent in the Alma Urbs, which "every intelligent foreigner" found so full of contradictions—magnificent churches, stately plazzos, tortuous streets, gay colours, and squalid rags. Benedict Joseph, however, must have found himself quite at home among the scores of beggars, whom artists thought so "Salvator Rosa "-like, and whom economists rated as so incurably idle. Most visitors to Rome during the eighteenth century were also puzzled at the paradox presented by the great dislike of the fashionable classes for odori, even choice scents such as attar of roses and lavender-water, and their apparent indifference to the sickening stenches from open sewers, which, not infrequently, disturbed the Rousseau-like reveries of northern sentimentalists amidst the classic and ecclesiastic grandeurs and memories of the then Garden City!2 These shocks to the olfactory nerves of the Quality, however, were used by our Saint as an additional form of penance, so completely dead was he by this time to every kind of personal gratification. He was assiduous in visiting the churches, and never missed any of the great functions and feasts. During the Holy Week of 1779, he might have noticed in the Church of Sancta Maria in Trastevere, an elderly, but distinguished-looking, personage dressed in black, with the "George" and Ribbon of the Garter, deep in devotion before the Madonna de Strada. The attendant Cavalieri, or the whisperings of the migratory congregation, would have informed him that it was Il Re—none other than the titular Charles III of Great Britain and Ireland, but whom his own "subjects" styled Il Prentendente! In the course of the last years of his life in Rome, Benedict Joseph lodged in various humble abodes, now in a cellar near the Quirinal, then by the ruins of the Colosseum—where Gibbon heard the distant chanting of the Friars while musing on the glory that was Rome's and finally and permanently, as an inmate of the Saint Martin's Night Shelter. Though "sleeping out" is a very different experience in Italy from what it is in our cold, variable climate, no doubt, even the most ascetic of us likes to think that this weary, worn sojourner among many men and cities found a more or less homelike shelter at last. It was fitting, however, that one whose whole life almost was spent in visiting shrines and churches should have been seized with his last illness in the Church of Santa Maria in Monte while hearing Mass there on the Wednesday of Holy Week, 1783. He was removed to the house of a butcher, named Francesco Zaccarelli, who had been very kind to the wonderful Frenchman, and in the abode of this obscure tradesman, in the Via dei Serpenti, the soul of Benedict Joseph Labre passed to its reward. The marvellous career of the celebrated pilgrim was already familiar to all Romans, and on Holy Thursday vast crowds attended the remains of the deceased, as arrayed in the habit of the Carmelite Confraternity of St. Martino, these were conducted to the Church of the Madonna de Monte, there to lie in almost regal state. Cardinals, princes, bishops, priests, religious and lay persons of every rank thronged the Church to gaze upon "II Santo," and implore his intercession. On the eve of Holy Saturday, the body, enclosed in two coffins, was interred beneath the high altar. At the requiem that day, Latin eulogies of the wonderful mendicant were pronounced by Fr. Mariani and a certain Doctor del Pino. The title Venerable was conferred on Benedict Joseph by Pius VI, 18th February 1794, and probably nothing but the French invasion of Rome and the long revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars prevented his speedy beatification. That was pronounced by Pius IX, who had a great devotion to the holy wanderer, on the 20th May, 1860. It was reserved for Leo XIII, who represented so much that was great and striking in Catholic erudition and philosophy, and who ever showed himself the true champion and friend of the proletariat, to pronounce the Canonization of this humble soul, whose surprising love of God had found so unique and curious an expression. This crowning event in the history of the Saint took place, 8th December, 1881, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, whose devout client he had been during the years of prayer and pilgrimage that were only to end with entry into the true home of all the just.
[Lives of St. Benedict Joseph Labre began to appear very shortly after his death. That by Marconi, his confessor, published in 1785, records some 136 miracles alleged to have been wrought through the Saint's intercession. Most of these relate to bodily cures. An English edition of this biography is said to have materially helped in the conversion of the Rev. John Thayer (1755-1815, the holy, but somewhat erratic, American missionary priest. There is a good sketch of the Saint by the Rev. Arthur Little, S.J., in the Irish Messenger Series (Dublin, 1921). Many curious but, no doubt, authentic details are also given in a very hostile account of St. Benedict Joseph, contained in the anti-clerical work, Rome: Its Princes, Priests and People, vol. ii., by Fanny MacLaughlin. (London: Elliot Stock, 1885.).]
1 Among the books read by the Saint as a boy, was an apparently gloomy treatise by Pere Aveugle, on the difficulties of Salvation, which work, no doubt, exactly suited the spiritual pessimism of the time and the prevailing Jansenism which so largely caused it. Such books, however, while not for all, have their merit. in drawing serious attention to a subject of paramount importance, and, in any case, Fr. Aveugle's dissertation helped to shape the career of our extraordinary Saint.
2 Glimpses of Italian Society in the Eighteenth Century. From the journey of Mrs Piozzi. (London: Seeley & Co. Ltd., 1892.)
(Taken from Vol. IV of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, the 1864 edition published by D. & J. Sadlier, & Company)