Black (And Catholic) Like Me 2: St. Benedict the Moor, O.F.M., “The Holy Black” (Black History Month 2019)
Here is the second Black Saint to be featured during this year’s celebration of Black History Month by my apostolate, and the 2nd installment of Black (And Catholic) Like Me, an article-series that features a Black Catholic saint from history (or soon to be one) and tells a little about him/her and what I believe we can all learn from this godly one about holiness. The idea is simple. Here’s someone who was Black and Catholic, like me. For more info on this article-series and others, visit here.
St. Benedict the Moor, O.F.M. – “The Holy Black”
Death: April 4, 1589
Canonized: May 24, 1807 by Pope Benedict XIV
Patronage: African missions, Black missions, African Americans, Black people, Palermo, Italy, San Fratello, Italy, Sicily
Feast Day: April 4 (April 3 in the Franciscan Order)
Family Slave Origins
- Benedict had slave parents who were captured in Africa.
- His parents were purchased and brought to San Fratello near Messina, Sicily and given Italian names.
- His slave parents worked hard and diligently and won the favor of their owner who later freed them before Benedict was born.
Early Life and Later Franciscan Recruitment
- Benedict is born sometime in 1526 in San Fratello.
- Has worked as a day laborer and “was quick to give what he had earned to the poor.” (Wiki)
- He never went to school and started off as an illiterate day laborer at 18 years of age.
- He was often ridiculed by others for his humble background and for his skin color, but he bore this suffering patiently in a truly dignified and Christian way.
- “Because of his lowly origins, St Benedict the Moor was often the object of ridicule, which he bore so patiently and cheerfully that he was called even during his youth, “The Holy Black.” (RCS)
- The fact that he bore ridicule so well impressed Jerome Lanze who was “a nobleman who had left the world to live under the rule of St Francis of Assisi” (RCS) and leader of a nearby community of independent Franciscan hermits.
- The community offered him a place in among their ranks. They followed St. Francis’ Rule for hermit life. They were stationed at nearby Monte Pellegrino.
- Benedict, who would always take the chance to be generous in giving his wages to the poor, sold all earthly belongings and entered the religious life as a lay brother of this community at age 21. (RCS) (Wiki)
A Life Among Brothers
- He moved to be with them at Monte Pellegrino and was assigned to humble kitchen duties, which he greatly enjoyed.
- When the leader of the Franciscan hermits died, Benedict was chosen to be the leader of the group.
- “In 1564 Pope Pius IV disbanded independent communities of hermits, ordering them to attach themselves to an established religious Order, in this case, the Order of Friars Minor. Once a friar of the Order, Benedict was assigned to Palermo to the Franciscan Friary of St. Mary of Jesus. “ (Wiki)
- Benedict was again assigned as a cook for the community, but he later displayed great piety.
- He would go on to serve as novice master and guardian for the community even though he still could neither read nor write.
“The Holy Black”
- He possessed great holiness and intuitive knowledge of the scriptures and spiritual matters, and others noticed.
- “He possessed extraordinary gifts of prayer, was divinely given an infused knowledge of the Scriptures, and had an intuitive grasp of deep theological truths, which astounded learned men and aided him in the direction of souls.” (RCS)
- “The reports of his sanctity spread throughout Sicily, and the monastery was constantly beset with visitors – the poor requesting alms, the sick in search of a miracle, and people of all ranks seeking advice or prayers.” (RCS)
- “St Benedict’s face was often seen to shine with a celestial light, especially when he was praying in the chapel. He was employed as a cook, but it was noted that angels were seen assisting him in the kitchen and than, moreover, food seemed to multiply miraculously under his hands.” (RCS)
- “Although St Benedict the Moor never refused to see anyone, he would have preferred to live a hidden life, unknown to the world.” (RCS)
- After many years, Benedict got the chance to return to a humble and quiet life of duties in the kitchen, which was his delight.
- He died April 4, 1589 at age 63 after a short illness.
- He predicted the very day and hour he would die.
- Because of his holy fame while alive, a cultus devoted to his veneration emerged after he died.
- His body was found incorrupt when his body was exhumed three years later in 1592.
There is definitely, I have seen, an element within a small section of the Black community in America to see Christianity as a “white man’s religion” due to the connection it has had with American chattel slavery and the well-known incident of forced conversion. For these reason and others some Black people (more younger individuals) reject the Faith because they see it as a part of what has robbed us of our African roots and heritage. Those among this thought don’t see Christianity as something “Black.” Moreover, sprouting from this mode of thought has been a small resurgence of what I call a “Black neo-paganism,” in which some try to adopt a personal interpretation of African religion with theologies that propose ancient pagan gods and even elements of self-divination in an attempt to get back to the roots of our ancestors. When I encounter this form of rejection of the Christian Faith I acknowledge the terrible history of Whites using it as an element within enslavement and subjugation but then point to the firmly-established history of African Christianity well before slavery: Ethiopian Christians, Coptic Christians, and the fact that northern Africa was largely Christian for centuries before the conquest of Islam. The Apostles and their successors and followers were bringing the True Faith straight from the beginning. Not to mention, there is the strong history of countless Blacks using Christianity to overcome the very slavery and later systematic oppression and discrimination that they faced, especially since there was never any room for either scourges against anyone who bore the Image of God in the first place. Thus, there is much within Christianity to claim as our own. There is much that is “Black.”
The Catholic Church is no different. Among the things we can claim our own, the rich heritage of Black saints is ours for the taking, for there are threads among these holy ones that bind them to us and connect us to them, so the Church is more than just a European thing. It’s always been for us too regardless of how anybody has treated us in the past. Tolton knew it, Mother Lange knew it, and St. Benedict the Moor knew it as well. The stories of the Black Catholic saints have been our stories, our history too. Just take a look at St. Benedict’s life and see how much stuff clicks for us back then and today:
- Had slave parents who were captured and in Africa, purchased, and owned by Whites
- Given “White/European” names
- Got freed
- Poor background
- Skin color and poor background made fun of and despised.
- Never given the chance of formal education.
- Menial labor job experience
- Overcame the haters
- Got hooked up with the squad (Franciscans)
- Earned respect for his hustle; spiritual game on point
- Always dressed fly (that Franciscan habit, tho)
- Young, Black, and gifted (miracles, spiritual counsel, angels helping him out)
- Gave back to the community by always helping the poor and accepted visitors; so, he never forgot were he came from and stayed real.
What do you see?
“Benedict is remembered for his patience and understanding when confronted with racial prejudice and taunts. He was declared a patron saint of African Americans, along with the Dominican lay brother, Martin de Porres.” (Wiki)
There are many Black Catholic parishes in the U.S. named after him.
The last thing I want to reflect on is the fact that no matter how famous he got for his holiness or his generosity or his miracles St. Benedict always remained that humble dude that just wanted to work in the kitchen and cook for his brothers. When he got famous he always accepted visitors and people seeking help with graciousness, but he never let that go to his head. Plus, even if he was never known, if he remained in obscurity, if he never was made a canonized saint for generations of others (including me) to look up, write about, and venerate by name, Benedict would have been just fine with that. He would have been content just to remain that cool, mild guy who worked in the kitchen. He still would have become a saint even if nobody ever heard of him after he died. He would have been straight with that. When I think about his life in relation to myself, would I be satisfied with that type of life, if God called me to live it? If could still make it to heaven without much notoriety while on earth, would I be cool with that? Or do I need people to know something about me? Do I want to be noted for living a good Catholic life for the sake of being known? Do I not really want to be the most famous guy but still want to be at least up there when it comes to people to remember for years to come? I guess there is a part of me that wants all that. But do I really need all that to get to heaven? No, in fact, I’m probably better off without it for the sake of my soul. St. Benedict is a reminder that “He (Jesus) must increase. I must decrease.”
St. Benedict the Moor will be officially placed in the Black Saints page in just a little bit. Also, I will place last Sunday’s holy person, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, on the page as well even though I do not have a personal reflection for her yet. When I create one I will make it a post and add it to her Black Saint page.
St. Benedict the Moor pray for us!