Bridges play an important role in our social life. In times of war they facilitate defense. In times of peace they promote communication, commerce, travel, pilgrimage. The Romans knew this, and made a point of constructing sturdy bridges throughout their empire.
In Europe’s “Dark Ages”, however, the ancient Roman bridges gradually fell apart, and contemporary governments were not keen about spending money to replace them or multiply them. We can understand, therefore, why European medieval traffic often came to a fretful standstill.
In the 12th century, there was a great upsurge of bridge-building, instigated not by the government but by the people. And it was a saintly French layman who reputedly led the way.
St. Benezet, also known as Little Benedict the Bridge Builder, was born somewhere in the countryside of eastern or northeastern France. As he grew up he tended his mother’s sheep. Though uneducated and unskilled, this Benedict was a quiet, devout youth, thoughtful of others. It seems that he became concerned about the risk people had to take when they crossed the Rhone River. In his day there were no bridges spanning the river, and its turbulent waters could easily capsize boats that tried to make the crossing.
One day in 1177, while the sun was in eclipse, Benezet heard a voice commanding him three times to go to Avignon, where the Rhone current was especially swift, and see to it that a bridge was built there. He obeyed without delay, and reported this command to the bishop of Avignon. Naturally, the bishop was hesitant about accepting the word of the frail teenager. But by working certain miracles, we are told, Benezet succeeded in convincing the bishop that the construction of the bridge would be an act of true Christian charity. Permission was granted, and the youth set about his task.
For the next seven years Benedict worked hard on the project, persuading the Avignonese to give their support, and studying the complicated details of construction. Around 1181, needing assistants in his labors, he organized a group of laymen into a sort of confraternity called the Fratres Pontifices (Bridge-building Brothers). They left construction work to the craftsmen, concentrating rather on securing the funds for building and maintenance.
This Avignon venture, in turn, inspired similar undertakings elsewhere, and bishops began to grant indulgences to contributors to these charitable enterprises. Elsewhere, too, bridge-building confraternities like that of Avignon sprang up. Some of them also managed hostels for wayfarers.
Unfortunately, Benezet himself died some four years before the great stone bridge at Avignon was completed. We are told that the wonders that occurred during its erection and the miracles wrought at the Bridge Builder’s tomb convinced the people of Avignon that the young man was a saint, and he was referred to as such as early at 1237. They therefore built a chapel on the “Bridge of St. Benezet” to enshrine his relics. There the body was venerated until 1669, when floodwaters carried away a large segment of the bridge. His remains were rescued from the flood, and on examination were found to be incorrupt. Now they repose in the local church of St. Didier. Understandably, bridge builders adopted little Benedict as their patron saint.
One can build in a figurative as well as a literal sense. Bishops, the pope in particular, are often called “pontiffs”, a title derived from the Latin word for “builder of bridges”. Building bridges between God and mankind is their special calling. Our Lord Himself was a “pontiff” in the sense that He made his cross a bridge on which souls could enter heaven. The beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” promises heaven to those who work for reconciliation; that is, “build bridges”.
Some persons labor to raise walls, or “iron curtains” to divide mankind. Others labor to tear down the walls that divide, straighten the paths that connect, bridge the crevices that separate people. Surely they come close to fulfilling the great commandment to love neighbor as oneself.
St. Benezet was one such. He promoted the unity of God’s children.
–Father Robert F. McNamara