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Saint Benedict the Moor

The following story appeared in the March 25 Idaho Catholic Register.



By Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

Saints throughout the ages are unique, despite sharing same truth. Some saints’ lives are outwardly turbulent. Others face battles within that we know about only because of the journals they left behind.


St. Benedict the Moor, a Franciscan in the 16th century, lived a peaceful life in a monastery. His crosses were not dealing with the machinations of politics and ambitions of men. Instead, his crosses were the constant interruptions to his prayer life and cooking.


In such a simple way, his life is remarkable because his surrender in obedience to God’s will was consistent and rooted in love. There are no astounding stories of struggles and victories about his life. What made his life remarkable was that he remained true to his call as a religious friar, although he was so well-loved he could have sought high positions in the Church. He would probably appreciate the fact that he is not as well known as other saints, but the humility of his life shines with the great glory of God in a distinctive way.


Benedict was born near Palermo in Sicily, Italy in 1524. His parents, Christopher and Diana, were African slaves who had converted to Christianity. Because Christopher and Diana were so devout in their faith, they were concerned about having children who would be born into slavery. Their owner, a nobleman named Manasseri, assured them that he would let their firstborn child be free. (It is assumed that their other children were born as slaves, although they may have been later freed.)


Because his parents were slaves, they could not provide an education for him. He never learned to read or write. However, they raised him in the faith, entrusting him to the Virgin Mary, taking him to Daily Mass and teaching him to pray throughout the day. He was teased and bullied by his peers for his black skin, but he found comfort in God’s love.


Benedict was so reliable and honest in his work that his owner, Manasseri, eventually made him an overseer. The other workers became jealous and spread lies about Benedict, saying that he was stealing from Manasseri to give to the poor and squandering all that was entrusted to him.


When Benedict was 21, he met Jerome Lanza. a nobleman of Palermo, who had given up all his riches to begin a hermitage. Lanza noticed how Benedict remained charitable and steadfast despite all the ridicule and bullying he endured because of his African heritage. Lanza, who was was impressed by Benedict’s strong faith and character, asked him to join his community. After receiving his parents’ blessing, Benedict sold all he had and became a hermit.


Lanza’s hermits imitated the lives of the desert hermits of the second and third centuries – dwelling in caves or individual huts, meeting only for prayer, meals and Mass. Benedict dove into the hermit life with zeal. Although he could not read or write, he listened attentively to scripture and all the teachings from Lanza and the priests.


The hermits walked on pilgrimages across Sicily and back. Eventually, they settled on Mount Pellegrino, outside of Palermo. In 1550, the Vatican told them that they needed to lessen their strict penances and no longer live in individual cells, but in a monastery.


Benedict became their cook. He was so well-loved and his advice so valued, that he was made their leader after Lanza died.


In 1559, the Vatican made it mandatory that the hermits individually become a part of an established Order or leave the religious life. Benedict and one of his friends chose to go to the monastery of St. Mary of Jesus, which strove to follow the strict original Rule of St. Francis.


The monastics there were was thrilled that Benedict had chosen to enter their community. His holiness and prayers were already famous throughout Sicily, and they saw his arrival as a sign of God’s approval on their reformations to be more in line with the vision of St. Francis of Assisi.


Benedict loved to cook and feed others, although he held to a strict fast for himself. People would come to the kitchen door to ask for food, his prayers and advice. The stories for his canonization include many miracles of food seeming to multiply and healings of numerous illnesses, including breast cancer and hernias. It was also said that he had prophetic knowledge. However, it was noted that if God’s will was not to heal or to give prophetic knowledge to encourage a person, Benedict would offer kind sympathy and loving words to strengthen the person in his or her suffering. Benedict was generous in his mercy toward others.


Although he was not a priest, Benedict was made the Guardian of the Com-munity and the Master of Novices. He accepted these honors out of obedience. His fame spread to Rome and then to the rest of western Europe. Nobles and clergy came to him for advice. Over the years, he had memorized and contemplated scripture so well that even theologians for the Vatican sought his insights.


When his time as Master of Novices ended, Benedict took up cooking again, his favorite duty next to prayer. Stories were spread that angels helped him in his many duties and that his face was divinely illuminated as he prayed.


In March of 1589, he became very ill. After being bedridden for a month, he died on April 4. The City of Palermo made him its patron saint, although he was not yet canonized. In 1592, his body was exhumed and found incorrupt.


St. Benedict the Moor (also known as “the Black” and “the African”) was canonized in 1807. He is the patron saint of Palermo, African Americans and African missions. His feast day is April 4.


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