Saturday, May 26, 2012

St Philip Neri

If one had to choose one saint who showed the humorous side of holiness that would be St. Philip Neri. Born in 1515 in Florence, he showed the impulsiveness and spontaneity of his character from the time he was a boy. His father was not successful financially and at eighteen Philip was sent to work with an older cousin who was a successful businessman. During this time, Philip found a favorite place to pray up in cave on a mountain that had been turned into a chapel. He then went to Rome in 1533 where 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. He felt so filled with 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 the men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest built a room called the Oratory to hold them in.
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 to be tempted!

The altar where the body of St Philip Neri lies, with the painting 'St Philip in Ecstasy' by Guido Reni
In 1555, the Pope's Vicar accused Philip of "introducing novelties" and ordered him to stop the meetings of the Oratory. Philip was brokenhearted but obeyed immediately. The Pope only let him start up the Oratory again after the sudden death of his accuser. Eventually Philip decided it would be best for the group to have their own church. They became officially known as the Congregation of the Oratory, made up of secular priests and clerics. Philip was known to be spontaneous and unpredictable, charming and humorous. One of his men was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina who wrote beautiful harmonic choral music and Masses.
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 humor like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. There were unexpected benefits to his lessons in humility. One member, Baronius, wanted to speak at the meetings about hellfire and eternal punishment. Philip commanded him instead to speak about church history. For 27 years Baronius spoke to the Oratory about church history. At the end of that time he published his talks as a widely respected and universally praised books on ecclesiastical history!
Philip died in 1595 after a long illness at the age of eighty years. This prayer is a fitting conclusion to this brief biography of this happy joy-filled saint: Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humor to our perspective - remembering always that humor is a gift from God.

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