Tag Archives: Benedict the Moor

Enfleshing God’s love for the poor

Today is a strange confluence of events and feasts which, for me, show God’s ongoing love for the poor.

Since March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, fell on Good Friday this year, it is celebrated today.

Yes, the Word became Flesh on a specific day; but He continues being made flesh every day – in those who are marginalized, rejected, denied love and life.

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Mosaic in the Filipino style in Nazareth

Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. I clearly remember the night, staying with my parents. I especially remember the phone call from a former classmate who knew of my concern for civil rights.

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Benedict the Black

Today Franciscans celebrate the death in 1589 of a saint I have revered since grade school – St. Benedict the Moor (il moro), as he was known then.

The son of African parents who had been slaves, St. Benedict was raised in Sicily. After being freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits and was eventually chosen their superior.

When the pope disbanded all the small groups of hermits, Benedict joined the Franciscans, where he served as cook. He was chosen superior, even though he was illiterate. He was later chosen novice master but he asked to be allowed to return to the kitchen.

His simplicity, his willingness to do whatever for the glory of God, reminds me of this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

Today is also the feast of St. Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedic bishop and teacher, who died in 636. He once wrote these words that reflect God’s love for the poor and mistrust of riches:

“The greater our love for the things we possess, the greater our pain when we lose them.
“Greed is insatiable. The person who is afflicted with it always needs something else; the more he has, the more he wants.
“The powerful are nearly all so inflamed with a mad lust for possessions that they stay well clear of the poor. Small wonder that when they come to die that are condemned to the flames of hell, since they did nothing to put out the flames of greed during their lifetime.”

Strong words that challenge all of us.

The challenge is how to be poor like Jesus, giving ourselves for others; how to be drum majors for justice like Martin Luther King; how to be humble servants like St. Benedict the Black; and how to use our gifts for the poor.

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Image at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 31st Street, NYC

Saints who touched me – Benedict the Moor

November 1 is the feast of all saints. I’d like to share a few of the saints who have touched my life.

I grew up in the midst of the piety of the 1950s where we said the Rosary in the family during October, where we learned about the saints in Catholic school, and where there was a large statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux in our parish church.

I had an attraction to the Franciscans at this time, which continues to this day. I even got to the first Mass of Father Cyprian Harkin, ofm, the nephew of a woman who worked with my Dad.

Somehow I learned of the Franciscan Saint Benedict of Sicily or, as he was known then, Saint Benedict the Moor – now called Saint Benedict the Black, who lived in Sicily from 1526 to 1589.

Born in Sicily of parents who had been freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits living under St. Francis’ Rule for hermits. Shortly after, the pope disbanded all small groups of hermits, and Benedict joined the Franciscans.

Benedict, though illiterate and a lay brother, was chosen novice master and later guardian of the friary. But he finally asked to return to the kitchen to do what he loved – cook.

Father Cyprian found a statue for me which I had stored with friends when I left for Honduras in 2007. On my recent trip to Ames, I found the statue and it is now in my prayer room – next to a Guatemalan statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a Bolivian angel.

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Why did St. Benedict mean so much to me in the late fifties?

This was the time of the civil rights movement and Benedict was obviously an example of holiness that is not limited to whites.His holiness also reinforced my concern for civil rights and racial equality.

Looking back, there are several other aspects of his life that touch me even now.

He was illiterate but that did not stop him from being holy or from being an example and guide for others. God does not need education to work wonders of holiness – though education helps.

In addition, he found holiness amid the pots and pans, preparing food for his brothers. He was a real servant.

I am so happy to have his statue here – as I try to be of service to the poor and to the faith community here.

I ask God for the grace to be loving and humble as Benedict was and be open to the poor.

An African-Italian Franciscan saint

Today the Franciscans celebrate the feast of St. Benedict the Black, also known as St. Benedict the Moor. I first read about this sixteenth century saint sometime in the 1950s. His story fascinated me.

He was born the free son of North African slaves in Sicily. He spent a number of years as a member of a group of Franciscan hermits. The small order was suppressed by the pope and he entered the Franciscans and began as a cook for the community. Even though he was illiterate and a lay brother, he was given major responsibilities, even becoming guardian of the community where he lived. They recognized the gifts of this man who had been insulted for his color and whom many would look down on for his lack of education.

Not much more is known about him.

A lay brother, illiterate, son of slaves, and black – and a saint.

In the late fifties a Franciscan priest got me a statue of St. Benedict (which is stored somewhere in Ames). I should bring it back the next time I get there.

The civil rights movement was very much on my heart during those years and to have found St. Benedict the Black helped me to root my support in my faith.

St. Benedict still inspires me as a simple witness to the dignity of all people and challenges me to respect the people I work with and recognize their gifts.