Monthly Archives: April 2013

Holy Fool Benedict Joseph Labré

The tradition of the Holy Fool, the person who is odd, at the edge of society, is strong in Russian Orthodoxy.

St. Benedict Joseph LabreThough the term is not used much in western Christianity, today’s saint, Benedict Joseph Labré, patron saint of the homeless, might well be considered a holy fool.

He was first educated by an uncle who was a priest. During an epidemic his uncle died as he was attending the victims.

Though Benedict Joseph tried to join the Trappists and the Carthusians, he was rejected by several monasteries. Accepted at a Trappist monastery, he left after several months, convinced that his vocation was to be a wandering poor pilgrim, like St. Alexis.

Though the Franciscans have claimed him, and some list him as a secular Franciscan, he was probably only a member of the Franciscan confraternity of Cordbearers.

He traveled as a pilgrim on foot, all over Europe. Finally he settled in Rome, living in the Coliseum, visiting churches, especially where the Eucharist was exposed during the Forty Hours devotion.

He did not beg but took what was given to him, often sharing his meager rations with other poor.

He had one set of clothes plus a few books to aid his prayer (including a New Testament, a breviary, and The Imitation of Christ.  My guess is that he emitted a rather foul odor.

He is buried in the church of Santa Maria dei Monte in Rome, one of his favorite churches. Barely 35, he collapsed outside the church and was carried to a nearby house where he died, on April 16, 1783.


Almost immediately the word went throughout Rome, “The saint has died.”

When I was in Rome in February of this year I went to his tomb and prayed in the simple, yet seldom visited church.  The bright sun illumined the church and his tomb (on the left).


His poverty and his simplicity have touched me for many years. “I am only a poor, ignorant beggar,” he told his confessor who thought he had been trained in theology.

He is a saint who calls us to solidarity with the poor, to be willing to love and accompany even the most repugnant and smelly persons. (This is sometimes a challenge to me here in Honduras.)

It is a call to become free of concern for acceptance and being recognized and free of our fear of being ignored or despised.

As Jim Forest has written:

“Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’? The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.… Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of ‘responsible’ behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? …

“Holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were but how merciful.”

May St. Benedict Joseph Labré inspire us to love without “clinging to the good regard of others.”

More on Holy Fools may be found in Jim Forest’s Praying with Icons, published by Orbis Books, 2008.



Sitting together on the mourning bench

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne

When tragedy strikes, some of the best characteristics of people come to the surface. People run to help, to bind up wounds, to carry away the victims.

The compassion gene comes to the fore.

When such a response moves people to a wider compassion, then God’s love can flourish in our lives.

DSC01469The image that comes to mind tonight is pacifist Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture in Berlin – a modern day Pietà, Mary with Jesus in her arms.

Being a pacifist, I abhor and condemn all violence, especially cowardly violence that takes lives without taking any personal risk.

And so, I mourn and condemn the killings and violence at the Boston Marathon.

But I also condemn and mourn those killed in wars and bombings by governments, including the US or US-supported governments.

And so tonight I pray for the dead and the wounded in Boston, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Israel and Palestine, in El Salvador and Guatemala, in East Timor and Viet Nam, in Hiroshima and Dresden, in Mozote and Auschwitz. And I cry with the families here in Honduras who lose loved ones to the violence – about twenty killed each day.

But I don’t merely mourn and pray for the dead.

I think of how I can commit myself to be an instrument of God’s peace in a violent world.


The title of this entry comes from recalling a quotation of Nicholas Wolterstorff that I read years ago in Stanley Hauerwas’ Naming the Silences: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering:

To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.


One word in today’s Gospel, the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the sea of Tiberias (John 21: 1-19), struck me.


Jesus addresses the seven apostles who have gone back fishing as children.

I checked numerous translations of the Greek παιδία – children. Almost all the English translations render this as “children” though the Jerusalem Bible uses “friends,” and the French La Bible de Jérusalem uses “les enfants.

Two Spanish translations use “muchachos,” which also means children, though I hear it more often used in Honduras for young people, “guys.” A friend said he translates “muchachos” as “boys.”

But the most intriguing translation is from Msgr. Knox: “lads” – so very British.

Jesus is calling his disciples “kids.”

Are we like kids in our relationship with Jesus, going about our daily tasks, not thinking about him, intent on what we want to do, unaware of his presence and unable to recognize him?

Peter has to face this directly when Jesus questions him.

“Do you love me [ἀγαπᾶς με]more than these?” asks Jesus. And twice Peter responds, “You know Lord, that I’m your friend [φιλῶ σε].”

Then Jesus asks him, “Are you my friend?” Peter, exasperated, answers, “Yes Lord, you know that.”

At the end of the scene, Jesus invites Peter: “Follow me.”

Don’t follow your old occupation, but follow in my path, my way that brings life – even though you will suffer.

I love you as a parent loves her children, but I want more from you. I want your wholehearted love, the love of agape which comes from following me – even to the Cross. For having passed through death on the Cross, the Lord Jesus offers us the risen life.

Yes, in many ways we are kids in our faith; but Jesus wants us to be more, to have a fuller life.

A fuller life comes from willing to let ourselves be led by Jesus – wherever that may lead us. It led Peter to a Cross and only God knows where it will lead us.

Slightly revised at 5:30 pm.

Rejoice at being dishonored

The closing of today’s first lectionary reading (Acts 5: 34-42) fascinates and challenges me.

The apostles had been arrested, released from prison by an angel, arrested again and brought before the Sanhedrin who had them whipped and released, warning them not to preach again about Jesus.

How do they react? (Acts 5: 41)

So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.
(New American Bible)

The apostles went out from the Council rejoicing that they were considered worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the Name.
(Christian Community Bible)

They, however, went out from the presence of the Assembly celebrating, because they had been reckoned worthy to suffer disgrace for the name.           (The Kingdom New Testament)

“Worthy to be dishonored” is probably the most literal translation.

How often do I do things to be recognized or to avoid being dishonored by others! I’d like to suggest that the fear of being dishonored, of being looked down upon, is one of the greatest hindrances to following Christ, to standing up for what we believe in.

Yet the apostles rejoiced in this.

And then what do they do? They keep preaching Jesus as the Messiah in the Temple and in people’s homes. They are unstoppable.

Even today there are people like the apostles who maintain a profound interior peace – a true joy – in the face of persecution, in the face of death threats. The most obvious example is the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, Monseñor Oscar Romero. But there are others whom I have met, some priests and pastoral workers in Latin America. I especially think of Sister Pat Farrell, a friend, who ministered in a war zone in El Salvador and has continued to show that peace in her leadership with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

But it is something we all can do.

Today I ran across this quote from Vincent Van Gogh, in a Facebook post by Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, that expresses, in a secular way, how to respond to voices that tell us that we cannot or should not do something

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.

And so, if we hear a voice telling us not to stand up for Christ, for the Kingdom of God, for justice, love, and peace, we ought to do it anyway.

Let nothing, no one, not even the forces of Evil stop us.

As Pope Francis said:

We ought not to fear the Evil One when he tells us that we cannot do anything against violence, injustice, and sin.


the Greek for Acts 5: 41 is:

οἱ μὲν οὖν ἐπορεύοντο χαίροντες ἀπὸ προσώπου τοῦ συνεδρίου ὅτι κατηξιώθησαν ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος ἀτιμασθῆναι·

Seeing from below

On April 9, 1945, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged for his participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler.

Bonhoeffer became, for many, an example of resistance to evil. His writings, especially those from prison, moved many to see that faith is not something that we only go to in times of trouble and that the Church must not turn in on herself.

He also saw that we must begin to understand the world in a different way, from below, an insight related to the preferential option for the poor that arose in Latin America in the late 1960s.

We stated what might be called “the preferential hermeneutic of the poor.” We can understand what is happening better if we look at it from the perspective of the poor.

We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer…. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.

Bonhoeffer lived this out. In 1939 he found himself in New York City, protected from the Nazis who were closing in on him for his work with the Confessing Church. But he decided to return to Germany, even though it would be dangerous.

For Bonhoeffer, following Christ means taking up the Cross, being willing to suffer – not from masochism or denial of the good of the world God has created. Following Christ means, as Bonhoeffer noted, being willing to suffer and die, to give oneself for others.

I think he was able to do this because he let himself be touched by the suffering around him and saw Christ Jesus, our Lord, as one who suffered and helps us see the world from the perspective of the suffering.

That’s not easy – but I think it’s essential and, when done with love, can bring deep joy.