Benedict Joseph Labre was an unemployed transient who begged around Europe for 13 years, eating refuse that other people didn’t want and clothing himself in rags. He was infested with vermin; he smelled bad. Yet fewer than a hundred years after his death in 1783, the Roman Catholic Church canonized him a saint. How and why did this happen? More important, what does it tell us about homelessness today?
“The poor you will always have with you,” Christ said in the gospels. The homeless have existed in America almost since its inception. Tough economic times, such as the post-Civil War years and the Great Depression, always increase the number of homeless. In those two periods, out-of-work laborers would hop on freight trains and travel the country hoping to find jobs. After World War II, skid-row districts, often populated by alcoholics and addicts, grew more prevalent as the homeless settled down more around community and social services. Some notable Americans who lived parts of their lives as itinerants and vagabonds were Joe Hill, Jack London, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac.
But what about Labre? How did he become homeless? What’s known about him was written down by his confessor, a priest named Giuseppi Loreto Marconi, in a biography a few years after Labre died and from testimony gathered for his canonization. According to Marconi, Labre had no addictions and freely chose his lifestyle.
In his right mind?
Why on earth would he do that!? Many doors closed in his life; things he wanted to do didn’t work out. He seems to have become discouraged and depressed. Did mental illness lurk? If he was depressed, did he possibly therefore sink into homelessness and poverty, the way so many with mental illness do today? It is almost inconceivable to think today that someone in his or her “right mind” would choose homelessness as a pathway to God. But that’s not to say Labre didn’t … or couldn’t.
Most people had their reasons for avoiding Benedict Joseph Labre when he was alive, yet as soon as he died, they called him a saint. Now many of us steer clear of the homeless – but are there some saints among them? Jesus himself had a soft spot for the underdog. He also lived as an unemployed transient for the three most important years of his life. The gospel says he had “no place to lay his head.” He lived off the handouts and generosity of others.
But Jesus had 12 close friends around him for support, companionship and comfort. When Labre was on the streets of Europe, he had almost no meaningful contact with others besides an occasional priest or confessor, such as Marconi. During that time, he had little or no communication with his parents, either, his biographer says.
Most homeless today are mirror Labre’s experience. They’re often cast out or shunned by their families, and their street relations tend to be shallow and short-lived. Thieves and parasites abound on the streets; the struggle to survive is paramount. Cold nights and winter in northern climes bring the threat of sickness and pneumonia; tuberculosis can spread in homeless shelters. An estimated one-third of the homeless population today is mentally ill. Because a common characteristic of mental illness is difficulty forming close relationships, these folks can find themselves even more isolated from others.
Seeking God through simplicity
Agnes De la Gorce, another Labre biographer, wrote in 1952 that he allowed himself no amusements and was excessively austere even as a youth. After unsuccessful attempts to join the Cistercian and Carthusian orders, he chose the life of a beggar, with its accompanying beatings, robberies, humiliation, mockery, stoning and aversion. He built up a wall of isolation around himself out of shame, she says. When it was suggested that he rid himself of the lice on his body, he declined, saying he wanted to mortify himself with their bites.
Most of us in America idolize upward mobility. Labre sought God by choosing the simplest life possible, through downward mobility. In her biography, De la Gorce quotes Abbot de Rance: “It is not the man who has much who is rich, but the man who wants nothing … renouncing the things of earth.”
Was Labre perhaps excessive and overzealous in his commitment? Most popular saints, such as Francis of Assisi, were equally radical. Labre died at the age of 35 because of his harsh, ascetic life on the streets. Some around him thought him deranged. We would be tempted to call him that as well.
But the church, through its investigative process of canonization and the leading of the Holy Spirit, named him a saint. So what does it really matter if he was crazy or not? If he was, so much the better, in a way: His life would show that mental illness is no barrier to sanctity. If Labre could achieve closeness to God through a homeless life, then there is hope for anyone who is homeless to do the same. In fact, all of us find a better hope through him.