National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

The Church’s Tradition of Holy Fools

BY Brian Mcguire

April 1-7, 2000 Issue | Posted 4/1/00 at 1:00 PM


In honor of April Fool's Day, the Register presents the following holy fools, from East and West, as a reminder that, in this life, to paraphrase St. Paul, we should all be honored to be called fools for Christ's sake.

These “ fools” would likely be thrown into an insane asylum today, but they were revered in their own day, particularly in the East, as saints.

Yurodivi, as the Russians call them, are often clairvoyant men and women who may shriek, levitate, spurn clothing and point out the sins of others to their faces.

Why would God reveal himself through such fools?

“It seems to be a clear indication that God's ways are not our ways –– that God, as the Fourth Lateran Council says, is much more unlike than like us,” says John Mallory, the director of religious education at St. Ambrose Church in Alexandria, Va.

“From the human perspective, I would say that the charism of holy folly is one of the most difficult, radical examples of grace transforming nature that you'll ever see this side of heaven,” Mallory added. “Holy fools are the closest to transcending the world because they more perfectly than the rest of us realize in their lives the otherworldliness of God.”

St. Basil the Blessed

The most famous of Russia's holy fools, Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Fired from his first job as a cobbler after both laughing and crying at a customer whom he knew would die before his boots were ready, Basil ended up wandering the streets of Moscow naked for many years.

There are many tales of Basil destroying the property of dishonest tradesmen and he was one of the few who dared warn deeds, if unrepented, would lead him to hell.

According to one story, Basil presented Ivan with a slab of raw beef in the middle of Lent, telling him that it didn't matter if he fasted or not since he was doomed anyway. Ivan, who murdered others at the slightest provocation, is said to have lived in great fear of Basil and would not allow anyone to harm him.

St. Bendict Joseph Labre

After trying to become a Cistercian and then a Carthusian, but not being cut out for either the religious or the secular life, Benedict Joseph set out to become a lifelong pilgrim, journeying to Loreto, Assisi, Compostela, Parayle-Monial, Einsiedeln in Switzerland and many other places. He lived in the utmost poverty, not begging, but accepting food from the well-disposed. Any money offered to him he usually gave away.

In 1774, he went to Rome and 'settled’ there, sleeping in the Colosseum and praying by day in various churches. When sickness forced him into a hospice, Benedict Joseph often walked out of the door with his serving of soup and offered it to others. In Holy Week 1783 he collapsed in the church of Santa Maria dei Monti near the Colosseum, one of his favorite haunts, and died in a nearby butcher's house.

St. Louis de Monfort

A native of Rennes, France, St. Louis challenged the faith of those around him to the point of suffering ostracism even from his religious confreres.

As a young man heading off to a Paris seminary, Louis' family offered him a horse to ride to Paris. He refused. Some of his family accompanied Louis as far as Cesson, where the road to Paris crossed the River Villaine, and there said their good-byes to him. Crossing over the bridge, Louis Marie took the first opportunity offered to him to give away the 10 écus given him by his father for the trip and exchanged a new suit of clothes given him by his mother for those of a beggar.

Tsar Theodore

The heir to Ivan the Terrible's throne, Tsar Theodore was regarded by Western diplomats during his day as a weakling and an idiot. The Russians, on the other hand, adored the Tsar for his simplicity, prayerfulness and the quiet devotion he showed to his wife.

Tsar Theodore would occasionally wake the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin as a summons to prayer. Liberal in alms and constant in prayer, he never lost his playfulness in 14 years on the throne.

St. Francis

His first efforts at following God's will led him to sell fabric from his father's shop in order to repair a local church.

When his father dragged Francis before the local bishop demanding that Francis return the money, the bishop kindly asked Francis to return the money, adding that God would provide.

Francis not only gave back the money but stripped off all his clothes in front of the bishop and a crowd that had gathered from town, saying “Pietro Bernadone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, 'Our Father who art in heaven.’”

Wearing nothing but castoff rags, Francis then went off into the freezing woods singing. At a different time, when robbers beat him and took his clothes, he climbed out of the ditch and went off singing again.

Francis wanted nothing but to live by the Gospel. Taking its commands literally, he once made one of his brothers run after a thief who had stolen his hood to offer him his robe.

St. Xenia of St. Petersburg

After giving away her inherited wealth, Xenia became one of Russia's many pilgrims who walk from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer (“Jesus, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). Xenia became known in her day for telling people what to expect in their lives and what they should do. She might tell certain people, for instance, to “Go home and make pancakes.” As these are served after funerals, the person she addressed would know that a family member would soon die. Xenia never begged, and only kept an occasional kopek for herself. Everything else she passed on to others.