Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194
Three years had passed since Piero Maironi, an artist, had renounced the world, and with it his love for Jeanne Dessalle. Maironi, whose wife was in a lunatic asylum, had fallen in love with Jeanne, who was separated from her husband. Before Maironi’s wife died, however, she regained her sanity and called Piero to her side. There he had recovered his sense of honor, and on the night she died, he had a prophetic vision concerning his life. He disappeared immediately from the knowledge of his family and friends, and none of his old associates had seen him since. Jeanne had received a message from him that told of his sorrow at the sin they had shared. In spite of his message she could not quite accept his decision but still hoped to see him and renew his love for her. Her husband had since died, and she thought that if Piero could come to her without guilt he might renounce the holy life he was supposed to have embraced.
With a new friend, Noemi d’Arxel, Jeanne began to travel over Italy in search of Piero. In the hope that he had not yet taken his final vows as a monk, she sought him everywhere. Jeanne herself could not accept God. She knew that this fact would be a hindrance to the relations she hoped to establish with her former lover, but she was too intelligent and too honest to pretend to believe in order to influence him.
At last Jeanne and Noemi found Piero at Jenne. He was a gardener in the monastery of Santa Scholastica, where he was the pupil and servant of Don Clemente, a Benedictine monk of rare humility and virtue. Piero was now called Benedetto, and no one but Don Clemente knew his real identity. To the people he was known as the Saint of Jenne, and many were cured of afflictions by merely touching his garments. Benedetto claimed no miracles; in fact, he begged people not to glorify him. Benedetto was a true man of God. He wanted only to pray and to serve others and to rid the Church of her faults. For this last desire he was often reviled, because many dignitaries of the Church could not stand to have their souls bared to the public. Loving the Church with his whole heart, Benedetto sorrowed when he saw corruption and greed weakening it from within. In spite of his sincerity and his humility, he was sometimes hated, sometimes worshipped by those who knew him.
Although Jeanne managed to see Benedetto alone, the interview was not a satisfactory one. He asked her first if she now believed, and honesty made her answer that she did not. Then he asked her if she would promise to live for the poor and to love the afflicted. When she answered that she would, he told her that he would call her to his side at a certain hour in the future. Until then she must never try to see him again. After Benedetto left her, Jeanne was lost in sorrow.
Even though he worked only for the good of others, ruining his health by his frugal habits, Benedetto was forced to leave Jenne because he talked out against the corruption of the Church. Friends helped him, including Giovanni Selva, Noemi’s saintly brother-in-law. Selva was a loyal Catholic who loved his Church so much that he wanted to see it rise above the worldly evils which threatened it. He had written some philosophical books on this subject, books which were in danger of being proscribed as unfit for Catholics to read. It was not always safe for Selva to aid Benedetto, but when he could not help the simple man himself he arranged for other friends to do so. Don Clemente, too, had been ordered by his superiors in the Church to abandon Benedetto. Although the monk obeyed, he longed for the time when they would all be vindicated and their teachings accepted.
Benedetto felt an invisible voice telling him to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to the Holy Father himself. Sick and weak, he made the long journey and was ordered to an audience with the pope. As he entered the Vatican, he saw again the vision he had seen on the night of his wife’s death. Alone, he found his way to the pope’s library, a fact the pope thought singularly strange; however, Benedetto had found the intricate halls and stairways just as he had seen them in his vision. The pilgrim learned that the pope was also concerned about the Church as it stood at that time, and he told Benedetto that the pope must deal with human beings, not with God alone, and that he had to consider how best to help all people everywhere, not those who believed only as he did. The Holy Father listened earnestly to Benedetto’s account of the four sins which he considered the most serious: They were the spirit of falsehood, the domination of the clergy, the spirit of avarice, and the spirit of immobility of the failure to meet the needs of the changing times. The pope agreed with Benedetto on these points but begged him to be patient in waiting for their correction.
Benedetto’s last plea to the pope was that Selva’s books might not be placed on the Index. The vicar made no promises, but he agreed to consider all the things they had discussed. Then he blessed Benedetto, and the pilgrim took his leave.
Not long after the interview friends warned Benedetto that the police were after him. Although she kept her promise not to try to see him, Jeanne sent him one message of warning. She did send her carriage for him once, in the hope that the reminder of her might cause him to change his mind, but her ruse was unsuccessful. Though the charges against Benedetto were false, sworn to by his enemies, his friends forced him to heed the dangers and hide himself. By that time he was in poor health because of his life of fasting and praying. Because he often went for days without food or rest, his friends knew that he would soon die.
Benedetto, also realizing that his days were numbered, sent for Jeanne. Before she arrived he saw his true friends once more: Selva, whose books had been kept off the Index because of Benedetto’s plea to the pope; Don Clemente, who had come to him despite the danger involved; the poor from all over the city. He blessed them all and exhorted them to keep God in their hearts through all obstacles and dangers. Last of all Jeanne went to him. By that time Benedetto was so weak that he could hardly move his head. He did not speak but stretched out his hand in the direction of the crucifix. When she took it to him, he raised it toward her lips. Taking the crucifix from his weak grasp, Jeanne kissed it passionately. A smile came to the face of the saintly man as he breathed his last.
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