Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, ‘the begger of Rome’

Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, ‘the begger of Rome’

CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano
Pope Francis blesses the sculpture “Jesus the Homeless” by Canadian Timothy Schmalz during his general audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this 2013 file photo.

Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz has created a number of striking sculptures which are situated in prominent locations around Rome, and the globe. One of the most renown is the bronze Homeless Jesus that sleeps on a bench outside the Elemosineria Apostolica, the Papal charity office. While the face is shrouded in a hood, the nail marks on the gnarled bare feet make clear that it is in fact Christ who is present among those whom society has deemed disposable.

This week on April 16, the church celebrates the feast of the patron of these “invisible” men and women living on the streets, Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre.

Labre was a French member of the Third Order of Saint Francis who lived in the 1700s and eventually came to live in the ruins of the Colosseum, well before the monument became the prosperous tourist destination that it is today. As he begged for food and lived in solidarity with those who had “neither nest, nor den,” (cf. Mt 8:20), he became a symbolic figure for sanctity amidst the homeless. He was eventually canonized by Pope Leo XIII, the author of Rerum Novarum and a church leader famously dedicated to exploring social and economic questions anew through a lens of faith.

Today Loyola University Chicago runs a program called the Labre ministry, which moves away from a notion of immediate “charity” (which they of course interweave into their work) to focus more upon lasting solidarity with the men and women living on the brutally difficult streets of Chicago. In such an endeavor, friendship and relationship become more important than food or blankets. While the “voice for the voiceless” motif continues to have importance in some advocacy work, the Labre ministry emphasizes that all human beings, even those in desperate need or with mental health issues, have a voice and agency in the world. It is left to the church and initiatives like this one to help them develop and articulate this voice, and such a method of direct encounter strives to do exactly this.

As their inspirational founder was wont to do (he was known not only as “the beggar of Rome” but also as the “saint of the Forty Hours” for his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament), the Labre project is firmly rooted in prayer.

One of their powerful ones reads: “You gave up honor, money and home for love of Jesus. Help us to set our hearts on Jesus and not on the things of this world. You lived in obscurity among the poor in the streets. Enable us to see Jesus in our poor brothers and sisters and not judge by appearances. Make us realize that in helping them we are helping Jesus. Show us how to befriend them and not pass them by.”

The pope’s recent Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Rejoice and be Glad’) calls us all to realize the relationship between poverty and holiness.

Unlike Matthew’s, Luke’s Gospel speaks not of the “poor in spirit” but instead of what we can assume are the materially poor (cf. Lk 6:20). “In this way, [Luke] too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9). Being poor of heart: that is holiness…. In this call to recognize Jesus in the poor and the suffering, we see revealed the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices, which every saint seeks to imitate.”

As we approach his feast, let the life of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, as all saintly men and women do, simultaneously interrogate our common daily practices, and inspire us to new ones.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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