April 3, 2017

Saint Benedict the Moor, Patron of African Americans

Saint Benedict the African
April 4th, is the optional memorial of Saint Benedict the African (1526-1589), also known as Saint Benedict the Black or Benedict the Moor, the 16th century Italian Franciscan hermit and monk, venerated for his humility, holiness and charity for all. His wise counsel and gentle pastoral nature enabled him to successfully help reform the Order in which he ministered. Benedict held important positions as a Franciscan, but gracefully turned to other work when his terms in office ended.

Born Benedetto Manasseri, in Messina, Italy, he lived on the estate of Chevalier de Lanza a San Fratello, a wealthy, land-owning patrician. His parents Christopher and Diana Manasseri, were both captured slaves from Africa who converted to Catholicism. Devout and noble of heart, they were able to secure from their master Benedict’s freedom. Even as a young boy Benedict exhibited such piety and gentleness that he was called the "holy Moor." (He was not a Moor, rather, "il Moro" in Italian, is "the Black".) Benedict worked on the estate until the age of 21, where he was frequently ridiculed by others.

Tradition holds that Benedict was befriended by a kindly nobleman named Jerome Lanze, who encouraged him to join a nearby group of hermits in Palermo, living austerely under the rule of Saint Francis of Assisi. Upon becoming a member of the community, Benedict gave his meager possessions to the poor. He excelled in all virtue, and after seven years with the hermits, was recognized as their leader.

In 1564, during the third Council of Trent, Pope Pius IV ordered all hermits to disband or join an Order. Benedict became a Friar Minor of the Observance at Palermo, and was made a cook. Eventually, he was named a novice master and even served reluctantly as superior. Benedict possessed gifts for prayer and the guidance of souls. While he remained illiterate and was never ordained a priest, people would travel for miles to hear him teach on Scripture and to experience his professed healing abilities. For his holiness, Benedict was greatly respected.

St. Benedict died on April 4, 1589, after a brief illness, having predicted the exact hour of his death. He was interred in the Friary church at Palermo. His veneration spread quickly. In 1592, Benedict’s body was exhumed and showed no signs of decay. King Phillip III of Spain built a larger shrine for Benedict near the Santa Maria de Gesu at Palermo in 1611 where his remains now rest. During the second entombment, Benedict’s corpse was again found intact. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743 and canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807. St. Benedict’s life is a model of Christian fidelity and illustrates the brutal inhumanity of all slavery.

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