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.