You can often tell much about a person by what he writes. Perhaps that’s true of this post. Hint: I’m a sinner. This saint makes that obvious! And that’s very cool, since I know more how to be repentent before Jesus, Christ our God.
There are people who are very learned in the academia of idiocy, who know nothing of the wisdom of charity, of becoming, as Saint Paul says, a fool for Christ’s sake (see 1 Corinthians 4,10). These academics, always on the fringe, however much they build themselves up, spend their time writing about how much some saints were mentally ill, including and perhaps especially Saint Benoît-Joseph Labré.
He tried entering many religious communities but nothing ever worked out. He undertook incredibly penitential walking pilgrimages all over Europe multiple times, learning always more how to depend on the providence of our Lord through His holy people. He even stopped at the house of the parents of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney. Our Lord wanted him to have those experiences, but also wanted him, in the end, for something quite different.
Some would condemn him as insane because of being rejected by so many communities and because of the pilgrimages themselves. Those with the wisdom of the love of God know differently, having experienced similar attitudes toward themselves for whatever reasons. Saint Paul begs people not to deceive themselves, wanting those who congratulate themselves as wise by kicking others into the dirt, instead to become fools for Christ themselves to the end that they might become truly wise in the charity of Christ Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 3,18.
Benedict-Joseph became a fool in all charity, always playing the fool, the idiot, the street-beggar (who are always thought to be fools), gaining a scrap here and there to give to his fellow beggars, who learned their worth by the love and respect he showed them. Manifesting Christ’s love to the poorest of the poor, the most rejected and despised was his new membership in a religious community, his new pilgrimage, this time to heaven. He died this way, in bearing witness to those for whom Jesus died.
He’s buried just down the street from where I lived for many years of my life in Rome. I would sometimes enter the little church and pray by his tomb. He’s been an inspiration for my own priesthood, that I might not fear being a fool for Christ’s sake. If I’ve learned anything from this foolishness, I bring that with me to the hermitage. How much I would like to live under bridges or on the street, ministering to the most rejected! But, I can do this a different way in the hermitage.
Having said all that, Benedict-Joseph is a saint; I’m not. His dedication makes me examine my conscience for all the failures I’ve had in my life, failing, as I have, to take care of the poor with the enthusiasm of Christ that he manifested so well. That is also a useful meditation in the hermitage.
I never tire of saying that, in heaven, the tables will be turned. Those who were thought to be foolish will now be seen as being the wisest of all. Saint Benedict-Joseph had a seraphic purity and agility of soul, on fire with the love of Christ, and found such humor in fooling people about his foolishness. They would figure out, however, in seeing his steadfast care of the other beggars, just what a saint he was. How many non-beggars he must have brought to heaven in this way! I bet there was even an overly academic cleric or two – right there in the center of the Pontifical Roman universities – who went from despising him to honoring him and, after his death, to praying to him. There were untold numbers of miracles after his death, and I bet some of these involved the conversion of the most hard-hearted. I would count myself in with those. Thanks, Benedict-Joseph!
This reminds me of my own time of begging on the streets of Rome, or, more precisely, on Ponte Sisto, a bridge not far from Tiber Island. For some of the years I was in Rome, after finally getting out of a wheel-chair, I hobbled about on crutches after a pretty horrific traffic acident or two. For a while, I lived near Piazza Farnese, which, for a normal person, was just a few minutes walk to Ponte Sisto. I took me about a week to build up the strength to make it all the way to the bridge, about ninety minutes of work by the time I made it all the way there for the first time.
It was Summertime, and extremely hot. The ragged T-shirt I was wearing was completely soaked with sweat. I had on specially altared jeans, thanks to the Missionaries of Charity, who cut off one leg above the knee, and above that, installed a zipper from the knee to the hip, leaving the lower leg exposed. The reason for this was a huge cage on the leg, keeping the bits and pieces of shattered bone in place as a cast could not (with amputation the other alternative). There were seventeen wires and screws going from metal rings around the leg right into the bones themselves, with the wires going through the bones and coming out the other side of the leg to be attached to the other side of the ring, making the whole contraption look ever so much like the spokes of multiple bicycle tires. Each of the holes piercing the skin had red iodine poured over it, looking so much like blood. Pretty gory, but it worked.
Anyway, I sat down on the pavement of this walking bridge to rest and take in the breeze high above the river. Even before I sat all the way down (quite an accomplishment in this condition), people started throwing money to me. I hadn’t intended to beg. It just happened. Soon, a fellow from Morroco spotted me, and took advantage. He started begging for me, pointing to how pitiful I looked with such a leg. Soon, he grabbed the money and left me there, only to return, however, with a pizza and a couple of beers. Very cool!
This was a great education for me, I must say, about the kind of people who gave and those who didn’t. Italians of all ages and conditions would donate. I don’t think any wealthy non-Italian gave anything. Those who were most generous and caring were youth from anywhere, especially those who were down and out, those who were alchoholics or on drugs or who had themselves been marginalized in their home countries for whatever reason. Over the next number of weeks, this scene would replay itself, and I got to be close to a number of “street people.” Since I knew all the Missionaries of Charity houses, I was able to direct them there if they needed help with this or that. Thanks to you, Saint Benoît-Joseph Labré!