Bishop Donald J. Hying from the Diocese of Gary, Indiana Offers us a Reflection on St. Benedict Joseph Labre
"I know very holy people who are stymied by an anxiety so severe, they find it difficult to go to church and be in a crowd with other people. Some folks struggle with depression so severe that they feel their lives to be worthless and themselves to be unloveable. They find it challenging to pray."...
Referring to our St. Benedict Joseph Labre, Bishop Hying states: "His legacy teaches us that the saints struggled with anxiety, depression, emotional and psychological suffering, as do so many of us.
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Thank you Bishop Hying for your most courageous and thoughtful words:
Bishop Hying's Message About St. Benedict Joseph Labre
May 3rd, 2018
A startling truth that struck me as a young priest was the number of people I encountered in the parish who struggled with chronic depression, anxiety, chemical imbalances, a borderline personality or other forms of psychological and mental challenges. Many of them were married, held jobs, volunteered in the parish and were remarkably productive but suffered profound anguish in their minds and hearts. Sadly, a taboo still clings to psychological illness. Most people can talk about cancer, heart conditions and medical treatments of all kinds, but problems of the mind are often feared and denied.
A saint that I have developed a strong devotion to is Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in 1748, he was the eldest of 15 children whose parents were prosperous shopkeepers. Feeling a strong call to the religious life, Benedict tried the Trappists, Carthusians and Cistercians, all of whom ultimately rejected him as unsuited for the communal life. In the pain of these refusals, Labre discerned a radically different vocation—to be a wandering mendicant, to abandon his family and country, to live a poor and ascetical life as a beggar in the midst of the world, to visit Christian shrines as a pilgrim.
Saint Benedict traveled on foot, slept in doorways and fields, ate what he could beg, prayed constantly, spoke little and accepted the misunderstanding and abuse of others with patience and meekness. Embracing the role of a Fool for Christ, often found in the Eastern Church, he is believed to have cured fellow homeless people, multiplied bread for them and levitated in mystical ecstasies. Benedict was a familiar figure in Rome, honored as the saint of the Forty Hours Devotion because of his love for the Eucharist. He died, probably from malnutrition, on April 16, 1783 during Holy Week and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti in Rome.
I mention him here because many biographers believe that Benedict Joseph Labre suffered some sort of psychological illness, perhaps some form of chronic depression or chemical imbalance. His inability to fit into any form of traditional religious life, his challenges in living with others, his way of life which seemed eccentric and strange to others, in the eyes of the world, all of these things would have been seen as liabilities, as something to be ashamed of or to hide. Benedict transformed his weaknesses and challenges into strengths, accepting his limitations as spiritual gifts, forging a unique path of sanctity, which perhaps no one, including himself, fully understood. He lived his 35 years as a spiritual odyssey of poverty, homelessness, misunderstanding from others and a persistent search for the Lord. His legacy teaches us that the saints struggled with anxiety, depression, emotional and psychological suffering, as do so many of us.
I know very holy people who are stymied by an anxiety so severe, they find it difficult to go to church and be in a crowd with other people. Some folks struggle with depression so severe that they feel their lives to be worthless and themselves to be unloveable. They find it challenging to pray. Others, because of emotional or psychological difficulties, may act or speak in ways that seem eccentric or off-putting to those around them. They may feel the rejection and derision of people who do not understand them. Benedict Joseph Labre struggled with all of these experiences and persevered in a radical trust and surrender to the Lord.
I ask all of you and myself how our parishes, leaders, schools and religious education programs can be more welcoming to those who struggle with any form of mental or emotional suffering? While acknowledging our limitations in expertise, resources and skills, we also need to respond creatively to the needs of those in our Diocese who struggle with such issues. Can we create support groups, offer prayer experiences, feature speakers who could reflect on how to integrate depression, anxiety and psychological illness into a lived spirituality? If you have thoughts, suggestions or ideas on such themes, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would also suggest you contact the Guild of St. Benedict Joseph Labre at GuildBJLabre.org. They are a Catholic organization that exists solely to support spiritually those suffering from brain disorders and mental illness and their families and friends. The Guild provides spiritual and practical online resources to help families and others understand the dynamics of mental illness and its impact on society.
Saints such as Benedict Joseph Labre remind us that holiness is for everyone as we discover ourselves to be, that there is no cookie cutter approach to the life of the Gospel, that God takes us as we are and that if we persevere in prayer, surrender and grace, the Lord will fashion us into the saint that he has called us to be. Those reading this who struggle with any sort of emotional or psychological challenge, please know of my love and prayers for you, the closeness of Christ and the Church and our sincere desire to reach out, welcome and serve you. You are not alone, your struggle is not shameful, you are loved by God and are a beautiful member of the Body of Christ. You can become a saint precisely in the gritty and challenging reality of your life as you find it. Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us!