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Rejected and yet sanctified

Peter Fleming  |  08 May 2019

Suffering from mental illness throughout his life, St Benedict Joseph Labre was turned away from holy places. But he made a holy life for himself on the streets.

We live in a simplistic ‘either/or’ society: Failure or success? Winner or loser? Villain or hero? The media, desperate to hold on to our attention, and trading on our gullibility, has made us a society which, although we once succeeded in breaking through stereotypes of an earlier era, is one of the most stereotyping societies of all.

On the other hand, authentic Christianity has the power to produce a ‘both/and’ community: ‘chosen’ while ‘yet sinful’, ‘blessed’ in a ‘vale of tears’. Jesus understood the complexity of the human character, and his only simplicity was to love us in all our contradictions.

The story of St Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783), a patron saint of those suffering from mental illness, challenges our present-day simplifications.


From an early age St Benedict Joseph showed a remarkable desire to help his neighbour in the spirit of Christ. His family sent him to be trained in the priesthood, but his uncle, who was the priest chosen to train him, doubted his nephew’s fitness.

This was to be the first of many rejections, by holy men, of Benedict Joseph’s earnest desire to join them in holy orders.

He was rejected by the Trappist monks at La Trappe Abbey; he was rejected by the Carthusians at Montreuil; he was again rejected by another Carthusian monastery at Longuenesse, after a trial period there, during which the monks especially were concerned for his mental condition. He went back to the Carthusians at Montreuil, and this time they too gave him a trial period, which he failed. Undaunted, Benedict Joseph tried the Abbey at Sept Fonts, was given an eight-month trial there, and again failed.


Still he persisted. Having exhausted the possibilities of France, he set off for Italy, again with the determination to find a monastery that would take him. None did, and Benedict Joseph became a perpetual pilgrim, travelling to and from shrines in Italy and Germany for the next four years between 1772 and 1776, bearing only a bible, a prayer book, and rosary beads.

Unable to find an Earthly home for himself, Benedict Joseph wound up living on the streets, for which reason he is also patron of the homeless. The closest he came to a permanent residence was a niche in the ruins of the ghastly Colosseum, and the only reason we know of his sanctity is because he asked one local priest to be his confessor, and the priest observed his charge’s life, conversed with him on Godly matters, and recognised the presence of a saint.


Mental illness is real, but it can also be relative. In our time, it is possible to be philosophically opposed to plastic pollution and yet repeatedly go into shops to buy water in plastic bottles. This is a form of madness, unrecognised because it is conventional. Much of Western society rejects the social liberation of Christ’s message but then wonders why society is so cruel; this is a form of madness considered intellectually respectable. We like to judge the past, but are incapable of judging ourselves.

Was Benedict Joseph’s obsession to join a monastery right? Were the monks also right to reject him? Can opposites co-exist and both be good in the eyes of God?

Could the wisdom of the world be wrong, and a man with a mental infirmity, which led him to a near-forgotten life on the streets, be a champion among saints?


Topic tags: saints

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