Happy Birthday, Holy Father!
Today is the Holy Father’s 85th birthday. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI was born on April 16, 1927. It was Holy Saturday. He was baptized on the same day. One-hundred-forty-four years earlier, on April 16, 1783 a poor man, who prayed always, died in Rome. His name: Benedict Joseph Labre. It is strange and wonderful that a man named Joseph, born on the feast of Saint Benedict Joseph, should take the name Benedict upon his election to the papacy. It is as if a providential indication of his destiny had been given from the beginning.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, born on March 26, 1748 in northern France, exemplifies a very particular kind of holiness found in both East and West. He was a wanderer who prayed ceaselessly, a pilgrim walking from one holy place to another, a fool for Christ.
As a young man, Benedict Joseph made a number of unsuccessful attempts at monastic life. He tried his vocation with the Trappists, with the Cistercians, and with the Carthusians, but, in every instance, after a few months or a few weeks, he was rejected as being unsuitable. Benedict Joseph was endearing in his own way. He was a gentle young man, tortured by scruples of conscience, and sensitive. He was completely honest, humble, candid, and open. He was cheerful. But, for all of that, he was a misfit. There was an oddness about him. He was drawn irresistibly to monastic life and, at the same time, rejected from every monastery in which he tried his vocation.
When he was twenty-two years old, Benedict Joseph left the Abbey of Sept-Fons, still wearing his Cistercian novice’s habit, with a rosary around his neck, and a knapsack on his back. His only possessions, apart from the clothes he wore, were his two precious rosaries, a New Testament, a Breviary for reciting the Divine Office, and The Imitation of Christ.
Saint Benedict Joseph visited the shrine of Our Lady of Einsieldeln in Switzerland.
Walking all the way to Rome, begging as he went, he became a consecrated vagabond, a pilgrim vowed to ceaseless prayer. He walked from one shrine to another, visiting the Holy House of Loreto, Assisi, Naples, and Bari in Italy. He made his way to Einsiedeln in Switzerland, to Paray-le-Monial in France, and to Compostela in Spain. He lived on whatever people would give him, and readily shared what little he had. He observed silence, praying constantly. He was mocked, abused, and treated like a madman. Cruel children pelted him with garbage and stones.
After 1774, apart from an annual pilgrimage to the Madonna at the Holy House of Loreto, Benedict Joseph remained in the Eternal City. At night he would sleep in the Colosseum. During the day he would seek out those churches where the Forty Hours Devotion was being held, so as to be able to adore the Blessed Sacrament exposed. So striking was his love for the Blessed Sacrament that the Romans came to call him “the beggar of Perpetual Adoration.” He was graced with a profound recollection in church. More than once he was observed in ecstasy, ravished into the love of God and shining with an unearthly light. It was on one of these occasions that the artist Antonio Cavallucci painted the beautiful portrait of Saint Benedict Joseph that allows us, even today, to see his handsome face illumined by union with God.
The Death of a Saint
On April 16, 1783 Benedict Joseph collapsed on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria dei Monti. It was the Wednesday of Holy Week. He was carried to a neighbouring house where he received the last sacraments, and died. He was thirty-five years old. No sooner did news of his death reach the streets than a huge throng gathered crying, “È morto il santo! — The saint is dead!” Benedict Joseph was buried beneath the altar in a side chapel of Santa Maria dei Monti. I have gone there to pray, and knelt before the life-sized sculpture in marble that depicts him in the repose of a holy death.
Benedict Joseph Labre was dead but a few months when more than 136 miraculous healings were attributed to his intercession. Present in Rome at the time of his funeral was an American Protestant clergyman from Boston, The Reverend John Thayer. The experience of Benedict Joseph’s holy death converted Thayer. He was received into the Catholic Church, ordained to the priesthood, and died in Limerick, Ireland in 1815.
This is the prayer to which The Reverend John Thayer attributed his conversion to Catholicism:
Almighty and eternal God, Father of mercy, Saviour of mankind, I humbly intreat thee by thy sovereign goodness, to enlighten my mind, and to touch my heart, that by true faith, hope and charity I may live and die in the true Religion of Jesus Christ. I am sure that as there is but one true God; so there can be but one faith, one religion, one way of salvation, and that every other way which is opposite to this, can only lead to endless misery. It is this faith, Oh my God, which I earnestly desire to embrace, in order to save my soul. I protest therefore before thy divine Majesty, and I declare by all thy divine attributes, that I will follow that Religion which thou shalt shew me to be true; and that I will abandon, at whatever cost, that in which I shall discover error and falsehood : I do not deserve, it is true, this favour on account of the greatness of my sins, for which I have a profound sorrow because they offend a God so good, so great, so holy and worthy of my love; but what I do not deserve, I hope ‘to obtain from thy infinite mercy, and I conjure thee to grant through the merits of the precious blood which was shed for us poor sinners by thy only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Guild of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre
Fast forward, if you will, to the early 1990s. Mildred and Timothy Duff, the mother and brother of Scott Duff, a young man suffering from schizophrenia, guided by Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, founded the Guild of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, an apostolate dedicated to the spiritual support of the emotionally troubled, the mentally ill, and their families and friends. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta told the Duffs that the Crown of Thorns in Our Lord’s Passion represented the sufferings of those afflicted by depression, and of the mentally and emotionally ill.
We recommend to the intercession of Saint Benedict Joseph, our beloved Holy Father who bears both his names: Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger eighty-three years ago today. We also recommend to the intercession of Saint Benedict Joseph all who suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other forms of emotional and mental illness. Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us, that like you we may pass through this life as pilgrims and as perpetual adorers, magnetized by the wondrous mystery of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.