St Benoît-Joseph Labre (April 16) has been called the representative of those who in the name of Christ refuse to be respectable

Benoît-Joseph Labre (1748-83) is the patron saint of the homeless. Having failed in his first ambition, to become a monk, he became for five years a perpetual pilgrim, before abandoning himself to the life of a derelict in Rome.

The eldest of 15 children of a prosperous shopkeeper, Benoît-Joseph was born in the village of Amettes, near Boul-ogne. Even as a young boy he manifested both extreme devotion and an inextinguishable horror for anything which smacked of sin.

At 12 he was sent to live with an uncle who was parish priest of Erin, some 40 miles from Amettes. There, he immersed himself in reading the Bible and the lives of the saints.

Although Benoît-Joseph was not gloomy – indeed, he seemed to be cheerful in the depths of his soul – he was never sociable. His first ambition was to join the strictest possible religious order and submit himself to the most rigorous mortification.

Something about him, though, made monasteries wary. The Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians all decided that he was unsuitable for any form of community.

Around 1770, when he was 22, Benoît-Joseph conceived the idea of becoming a pilgrim. He set out for Rome, travelling on foot and depending entirely on alms. His aim, in imitation of his Master (Luke 9:58), was to have nowhere to lay his head.

Such gifts as he received he often passed on to those whose need he considered greater than his. He had no possessions save his increasingly disgusting clothes, and three books, the New Testament, the Breviary and The Imitation of Christ. 

As he walked he became totally absorbed in prayer and meditation, rarely speaking to fellow pilgrims. Nor, it must be admitted, were they keen to talk to him, given his stinking condition.

So, over the years, Benoît-Joseph made his way to all the main pilgrim shrines in western Europe, including Loreto and Assisi in Italy, Compostela in Spain, Paray-le-Monial in France and Einsiedeln in Switzerland, which he visited five times.

From 1774, however, he settled in Rome (save for an annual visit to Loreto), sleeping rough in the Colosseum until forced by illness to enter a hospice for the poor.

He spent his days in churches, becoming known as “the saint of the Forty Hours” in consequence of the long periods he spent in contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament. 

Finally, on April 16 1783, worn out by his sufferings and austerities, Benoît-Joseph sank down exhausted on the steps of his favourite church, the Madonna dei Monti, and was carried to a neighbouring house, where he died.

Canonised in 1883, Benoît-Joseph has been called a “representative example of those who have refused, in the name of Christ, to be respectable”.