January 5, 2013

Pilgrimage to St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Guessing that it was probably the last day of Christmas quiet here in the Curia, I decided that yesterday was the right moment for a little pilgrimage I had been hoping to make.

I first happened upon a devotion to St. Benedict Joseph Labre in the days after my departure from the novitiate of the OFM. I had entered their formation program right after college. It was a very rich of time, full of formative experiences, things learned, and friendships made for which I have become increasingly grateful over the years. In the end, though, it didn't work out. I found myself marking my third anniversary of baptism already a novice religious; I had a lot of zeal, but not a lot of roots. I was also very innocent in a lot of ways; most of my expectations of religious life had been formed from reading the lives of the saints and from the movies. Having found something different and not a few things that were hard for me to understand or interpret, life got confusing. On the advice of my directors, I left half-way through the novitiate, on Christmas morning.

It was a strange time, difficult and confusing.  But it also got to be a very blessed time, a moment when I began to learn for myself--somewhat ironically--what Franciscan poverty really meant for me. I had to seek in prayer what I was supposed to do, not in some abstract sense of 'what should I do with my life', but in the immediate and concrete sense of what I was supposed to do the very next day.

At some point in this moment of my journey I discovered Benedict Joseph Labre. I don't remember if I read somewhere that he was the patron saint of people dismissed from religious life or if I decided it myself. If he's not, he should be. Having decided that he wanted to become a Trappist, he applied to La Trappe and was rejected. After that he tried to be a Carthusian, but was sent home after a few months. After that he was admitted to another monastery of Trappists, but that didn't work out either. In each of these cases, one immediately suspects something that what we would call mental illness or at least instability. What he had taken to be a vocation to religious life not having materialized, Benedict Joseph became a kind of homeless pilgrim, a 'fool for Christ', visiting and praying at the shrines of Europe. He died during Holy Week of 1783, at the age of 35, on a street in the neighborhood of S. Maria ai Monti in Rome, where he attended Mass each morning.

What I hadn't known before moving here to Rome is that Benedict Joseph Labre is also buried in that same church; the people of the area already thought him a saint at his death. When I realized this, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage.

Hic Jacet Corpus S. B. J. Labre

If you know Rome at all, S. Maria ai Monti is close to the Cavour stop on Metro B, so it's also not far from the Colosseum. St. Benedict Joseph's altar is the first one to the left of the sanctuary.

After praying for everyone I could think of, I spent some time just sitting by Benedict Joseph's altar. I got to thinking about how many times, on the way back and forth to Italian school, I had rode by on the subway not so far from there, totally unaware of my passing the remains of this saint given to me as an important devotion in my own story. I thought that perhaps he had been praying for me all that time. Some of those summer days weren't so easy, in fact, especially during the second half of August as Rome went dead and the heat seemed like it would never end, and there I was, still living the grind of language school. Probably Benedict Joseph Labre is praying for everyone who passes by on Metro B, especially those in any kind of struggle.

One time I went to confession and the priest recommended to me as a penance to pray for everybody who was praying for me. A lot of people pray for priests and religious, he said, and it was a good thing to remember and remain grateful for their charity. I think there's a lot of courage in that, to remember that we are being prayed for not only in ways that we are aware of, but also by people and in in ways that are hidden from our awareness. Indeed, in the largest sense, this is one of the great encouragements of being a Catholic. When we say that we are members of the 'Catholic' Church, we don't mean this primarily as a historical or geographical category, but as an acclamation of a communion that embraces at once the Church on earth, the Church in heaven, and the Church in purgatory. To pray in Christ is to embrace the catholicity of this communion, to confess and take courage that the Church in Heaven is praying with us and for us.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us.


Terry Nelson said...

I'm so glad you got there - I love St. Benedict Joseph. I sat there like you did for a long time. What I didn't know is that there is another little chapel near by in the house where he died - I think a shop owner brought him to the room to die. I wish I had visited it.

Thanks for the prayers Father!


Brother Charles said...

Now I have to go back!

Cole Matson said...

I'm glad that you were able to get there. St Benedict Joseph Labre has been an encouragement to me, after not being able to enter the Jesuits as I would have liked.

Happy Epiphany!

Tom Sofio said...

Thank you for introducing me to St. Benedict Joseph. I did further reading on him and have a new intercessor to call upon.... and another reason to return to Rome for a pilgrimage sometime!

(FYI, if you are ever in doubt, this is why your blog is a ministry)

CT said...

Thanks for the information about a powerful and timely intercessor, and for sharing about your novitiate experience. As one who lasted only a short time in formation--but who hopes to try again someday, unless God has other ideas--your words are encouraging.

Paul Zalonski said...

I think my friend Fr Mark introduced to Saint Benedict Joseph several years ago. A grateful introduction, at that. Since then, I have been curious and awe-struck by him ever since. In many ways my life mirrors his in terms of vocation discernment to follow Christ more profoundly and to serve His Church. Being a simple religious is all some want!

One thing I am sad about is that the Church makes so few options for people with mental illness, or socially awkward people who feel called to be a religious. This is especially true given some of the people we've admitted to vows and have not been exemplary religious men and women. I wonder what Benedict's life would've been had he gained entrance into a religious order.

I've been to Rome many times and I've never visited the tomb of Saint Benedict Joseph. Thanks for helping me to reflect more on this saint and my own life. Next time I am in the Eternal City I am making a pilgrimage to see him.

Your reflections are poignant.

Mutual prayers.