PHILIP NERI - SAINT WITH A SMILE
“A joyful heart is more easily made perfect
than one that is downcast.” – Philip Neri
I want to share with you "my" Saint, St Philip Neri, my own patron saint, the patron saint of joy and merriment in the faith. He was devout, but with a smile - and often displayed a wicked sense of humour. He also had a bit of "a short fuse", especially with people he found annoying. That's the sort of saint for me!
If one had to choose one saint who showed the humorous side of holiness that would Philip Neri. Born in 1515 in Florence, his father was not successful financially and at eighteen Philip was sent to work with an older cousin who was a better businessman. During this time, Philip found a favourite place to pray up in the fissure of a mountain that had been turned into a chapel. We don't know anything specific about his conversion but during these hours of prayer he decided to leave worldly success behind and dedicate his life to God.
He went to Rome in 1533 where he was the live-in tutor of the sons of a fellow Florentine. He studied philosophy and theology until he thought his studies were interfering with his prayer life. He then stopped his studies, threw away his books, and lived as a kind of hermit.
Night was his special time of prayer. After dark he would go out in the streets, sometimes to churches, but most often into the catacombs of St. Sebastiano to pray. During one of these times of prayer he felt a globe of light enter his mouth and sink into his heart.
This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers.
In 1548 Philip formed a confraternity with other laymen to minister to pilgrims who came to Rome without food or shelter. The spiritual director of the confraternity convinced Philip that he could do even more work as a priest. After receiving instruction from this priest, Philip was ordained in 1551.
At his new home, the church of San Girolamo, he learned to love to hear confessions. Young men especially found in him the wisdom and direction they needed to grow spiritually. But Philip began to realize that these young men needed something more than absolution; they needed guidance during their daily lives. So Philip began to ask the young men to come by in the early afternoon when they would discuss spiritual readings and then stay for prayer in the evening. The numbers of men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest Buonsignore Cacciaguerra gave a more formal structure to the meetings and built a room called the Oratory in which to hold them.
Philip understood that it wasn't enough to tell young people not to do something -- you had to give them something to do in its place. So at Carnival time, when the worst excesses were encouraged, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches with a picnic accompanied by instrumental music for the mid-day break. After walking twelve miles in one day everyone was too tired for temptation!
In order to guide his followers, Philip made himself available to everyone at any hour -- even at night. He said some of the most devout people were those who had come to him at night. When others complained, Philip answered, "They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin." Not everyone was happy about this growing group and Philip and Buonsignore were attacked by fellow priests.
In 1555, a Papal officer accused Philip of "introducing novelties" and ordered him to stop the meetings of the Oratory. Philip was broken-hearted but obeyed immediately. The Pope only let him start up the Oratory again after the sudden death of his accuser. Despite all the trouble this man had caused, Philip would not let anyone say anything against the man. At that point, Philip decided it would be best for the group to have their own church. They became officially known as the Congregation of the Oratory.
Philip was known to be spontaneous and unpredictable, charming and humorous. He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humour and by “slapstick” and were related with gratitude by the people they helped.
His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Misere at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.
Philip preferred spiritual mortification to physical mortification. When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission - if he wore the hair shirt outside his clothes! The man obeyed and was granted humility in the jokes and name-calling he received.
There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to appear. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books. Philip was very serious about prayer - when asked how to pray his answer was, "Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you." Philip died in 1595 after a long illness at the age of eighty years.
Father, You continually raise up Your faithful to the glory of holiness. In Your love kindle in us the fire of the Holy Spirit, who so joyfully filled the heart of Philip Neri. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who smiles and who cries with us.
Lord, we take ourselves far too seriously. Help us to add humour to our perspective - remembering always that humour is one of your most precious gifts to us. Rid us of fear and negativity, and teach us to view situations through Your eyes and discover reasons to rejoice. May we grow in humble confidence, which sets free the gift of humour within us.
Heavenly Father, you gave us Saint Philip Neri to be for us an example of holy joy. We ask you, in this time of Pentecost to fill us with this joy of the Holy Spirit as you did your faithful servant Philip Neri. Through his intercession, may we be overwhelmed
with a heart burning with love for You.
May the Holy Spirit so fill our heart and soul that You become our only love and desire. Enkindle in us the Pentecostal zeal and burning love of the disciples, to glorify You through Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.