St. Benedict the Moor


Just because some people are born black, non-blacks have tended to think them odd, and to discriminate against them. To white people, blackness of skin is somehow harder to accept than whiteness or even yellowness or brownness. Yet the God who made whites white also made blacks black, and both must work out their God-given destiny in that context.

St. Benedict the Moor (or the Black) gives us a wonderful example of how a black can overcome discrimination simply by living up to his God-given potentialities.

Benedict was the son of a slave father, but his master gave him freedom when he was 18. Where did all this take place? The United States? No. Latin America? No. Italy! Benedict was born near Messina and spent all his life in Sicily. His father, Christopher Manasseri, an Ethiopian, was a foreman on a farm. Benedetto Manasseri grew up sweet-tempered and devout, and was even called the “Holy Negro” because of his concern for the poor. Still, he was not spared ridicule. One day when he was 21, for example, a neighbor taunted him, “You folks are slaves, and you are a blackie.” The youthful Moor was deeply hurt. But it happened that a young nobleman named Jerome Lanza overheard the insult. “You make fun of this poor black man now,” he said to the insulter, “but I can tell you that before long you will hear great things of him!”

Prophetic Lanza was a devout man himself. He had sold his property and become a hermit with a few other like-minded men. Now he invited Benedict to join their company. The Moor did so. He proved well adapted to the hermit life, and when Lanza died an untimely death, he was chosen, however unwillingly, to succeed him as superior.

After a few years, Pope Pius IV decided to discontinue this and some other small hermit groups, recommending that the members join one of the large established religious orders.

Benedict, then 38, entered the Franciscan order. Soon he acquired such a reputation for holiness and wisdom that, even though he was only a lay brother and not a priest, and even though he could neither read nor write, he was named head of this Franciscan convent. God gave him knowledge and wisdom, and his repute for holiness spread so widely that people from all over Sicily came to ask his counsel, to kiss his hand, and even to snip off a bit of his religious habit as a precious relic. He was austere but commonsense in his advice. For instance, regarding mortification in the matter of food, he said it was better not to go without food but to begin to eat, and then stop short! But he was also given mystical gifts. Many miracles were attributed to him; and when he was in ecstasy this black man’s face glowed as much as that of a white mystic’s with the heavenly light of God’s presence.

Benedict “of San Filadelfio” (as he was called) died in 1589 at the age of 63. He was canonized a saint in 1807. The city of Palermo, Sicily, adopted him as its patron saint, and he has since been named patron of all blacks in North and South America.

If Sicily and Spain and Latin America came to revere this humble Franciscan despite his color, American Catholics have been too slow to acknowledge the holiness of which their black brothers are capable. For example, when Father John Dorsey (1873-1926) became the first black Catholic ordained a priest in the USA (1902), he embarked upon an apostolate of suffering because of the discrimination shown him by other American Catholics. Despite Father Dorsey’s ability, he was not invited to make his retreat with white priests; his bishop was abrupt with him; and even the nuns of a black religious order refused to take care of him when he was sick because he was too black for them! But Fr. Dorsey kept agitating for more black priests. Things have changed a good bit today. We now have many black priests in the U.S., and several black bishops. But we should have more, and are those we have fully accepted by white Catholics?

St. Benedict the Moor proved by his life that God is color-blind. If we Christians are called upon to imitate God, we should be color-blind, too!

--Fr. Robert: F. McNamara