By Margaret Smith

He was a common sight in Rome during the eighteenth century, dressed in whatever rags he could find, barefoot, sleeping in the streets near the Colosseum and always carrying his few possessions.

These were his two Rosaries, one round his neck, the other, made from wild rose bushes, in his hand and, in a small bag a New Testament, a Breviary and a copy of ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Few ever went near him because of the odour surrounding him.

Yet, Benedict Joseph Labre, the first child of the fifteen born to Jean-Baptiste Labre and Anne-Barba, in northern France in 1748 could have had a comfortable life as his parents were reasonably well off.
Initially he was given a private education and then sent to his uncle, the parish Priest of Erin, some distance from the family home, when he was twelve. Benedict then declared that he was “unable to conquer a constantly growing distaste for any form of learning.”

When cholera broke out in 1766, both Benedict and his uncle cared for the local people, though his uncle was to become the last victim of that epidemic.

Benedict wanted a life of solitude and austerity, preferably in a strict monastic order such as the Trappists. His parents were against this but eventually agreed, fearing that any further opposition “would be resistance to the will of God.”

Unfortunately, Benedict’s attempts to join any monastic order were met with failure. First, the Trappists rejected him on the grounds that he was too young and had no knowledge of plainchant or logic. Then he was rebuffed by both the Cistercians and Carthusians and it was said that, during his lifetime, he was rejected by eleven different orders.

Such failures affected his health and he finally decided that his vocation “lay elsewhere.”
He then set out to walk to Rome and then came what he called ‘a mental illumination’ which persuaded him to “abandon his parents and his country” in order to “lead a new life.”

This life was to be “most painful, most penitential, not in a wilderness nor in a monastery but in the midst of the world, devoutly visiting as a pilgrim the most famous places of Christian devotion.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own