Today the church remembers a 16th Century saint who deserves more nods than he typically receives: St. Benedict the African, Friar, Friend of the Blue Collar, and Champion of Humility.
note: St. Benedict shares a feast day with St. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th but, because it is shared, is usually transposed to the 5th to stand alone
St. Benedict the African was born in 1526 in Messina, Italy as the son of slaves who were converted to Christianity. He was under forced servitude until he was eighteen and, once granted his freedom, made his living as a day laborer. Though he made little money at his work, he shared most of his wages with those who made less than him, and he devoted much of his off time to caring for the sick and infirm.
His race and status in Italy made him the focus of much ridicule and scorn, but his reputation for handling the derision with fortitude and undeserved grace spread. He attracted the attention of Jerome Lanzi, a devotee of St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Benedict was encouraged to join Lanzi’s group of hermits, living a life of piety.
Lanzi died not long afterward, and St. Benedict reluctantly took the helm of the lay order, leading his fellow hermits as they served those who had no one to help them. When Pope Pius IV directed all informal monastic groups to identify with established orders, St. Benedict linked the hermitage with the Franciscans, and he was assigned to serve in the kitchen.
Doing his duties with careful attention and pride, St. Benedict found small ways to enliven the lives of his fellow brothers, and he shunned the lime-light. St. Benedict, throughout his life, wanted to embody the meek way.
In 1578 this brother without formal education (he was unable to read) was appointed as guardian of his Friary. Every account notes that he was the ideal superior: quick witted, theologically profound, gentle, and attuned to the sacredness of life. He often chose to travel in humble ways, at night or with his face covered, not wanting too much attention for his work. He had the scriptures memorized, and he was known for teaching the teachers in many ways.
Toward the end of his life, St. Benedict asked to be removed from his position as guardian of the Friary, and wanted to be reassigned to the kitchen. He died in 1589, and is enshrined still today as a saint worth emulating.
St. Benedict the African is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that education, family, and status are poor indicators of leadership in many ways. Resumes are ego documents that don’t reflect the spiritual sensibilities of an applicant.
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations