Today is the Feast Day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, also known as the Beggar of Perpetual Adoration.
He was born in 1748 in the north of France, the eldest of fifteen children of a prosperous shopkeeper. He was educated by his uncle, a parish priest, and was religious from a very early age. At the age of sixteen, he attempted to join the Trappists, Carthusians, and Cistercians, but each Order rejected him.
He believed God was calling him to a life of poverty and pilgrimage, as a mendicant or “Fool for Christ”. He first walked to Rome, then to most of the major shrines of Europe, including Loreto, Assisi and Santiago de Compostela. During these pilgrimages, he always travelled on foot and slept in the open or in a corner of a room. His clothes were muddy and ragged, and he ate only what he was given through begging, often sharing it with others. His only possessions were two rosaries made out of wild seeds, a New Testament, a prayer book and The Imitation of Christ. He talked rarely, prayed often, and accepted abuse with humility. In prayer, he would often swoon, and sometimes levitate or bilocate. He cured some of the other homeless people he met and miraculously multiplied bread for them.
In the last years of his life, he lived rough on the streets of Rome, often sleeping in the walls of the Colosseum. He was a familiar figure in the city and became known as the “saint of the Forty Hours” for his dedication to the Quarant’ Ore (forty hours of devotion before the Blessed Sacrament).
In his final weeks, he collapsed outside the Church of Santa Maria dei Monti in Rome just after attending Mass, and was taken into a nearby house. He died there of malnutrition on the Wednesday of Holy Week, on this day in 1783.
The spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in a short piece called “Integrity,” wrote:
“One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him. In fact they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud: but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends. And he has inescapable difficulties in applying all the abstract norms of ‘perfection’ to his own life. He cannot seem to make his own life fit in with the books.
Sometimes his case is so bad that no monastery will keep him. He has to be dismissed, sent back to the world like Benedict Joseph Labre who wanted to be a Trappist and a Carthusian and succeeded in neither. He died in some street in Rome.
And yet the only canonized Saint, venerated by the whole Church, who has lived either as a Cistercian or a Carthusian since the Middle Ages, is Saint Benedict Joseph Labre.”
Who knows what saintliness and beauty lies at the heart of tramps, vagabonds and alleycats? From Jesus Christ to Joe Hill and beyond, the holy hoboes of God move from place to place, disregarded by the world and suspected of madness or worse – but perhaps they bring a little light and love to the places where they stop.
The Vicar says that all this reminds her of a great TV programme called The Littlest Hobo, which she loved as a child despite the fact that (as she embarrassingly admitted in the newspaper yesterday) it made her cry every week. We can confirm – sad but true – that she really does know all the words to the theme song. Let’s just hope that she doesn’t feel moved to sing them at Mass this evening, as she really will cry – and probably so will everyone else…