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Friday, May 26, 2017

St. Philip Neri

St. Philip Neri
Today the Church honors a great saint, Philip Neri (Filippo di Neri), who countered the decadent culture of his time with humility, charity and truthfulness. Philip (July 21, 1515 – May 25, 1595), was an Italian priest noted for his piety and charity and for founding a society of secular clergy called the Congregation of the Oratory.
Centuries later Blessed John Henry Newman, inspired by his holy life, took him as a spiritual patron and, together with some of his convert friends, joined the Congregation of the Oratory, and founded an Oratory in Birmingham, England. In 1850, in a sermon on the feast day of St. Philip, Newman addressed the members of the Oratory outlining the life and virtues of St. Philip.



In a series of short posts we will look at Newman’s sermon, “The Mission of St. Philip,” contrasting him with Savonarola, another Florentine reformer. Newman begins describing the time in which these men were born, a time when unworthy prelates in Rome and powerful ruling families in Florence disgraced the Church.
While maintaining the assistance of the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals Newman was candid about the sinfulness of the Church’s prelates:
The Church “nevertheless was at this time so environed, so implicated, with sin and lawlessness, as to appear in the eyes of the world to be what she was not. Never, as then, were her rulers, some in higher, some in lower degree, so near compromising what can never be compromised; never so near denying in private what they taught in public, and undoing by their lives what they professed with their mouths; never were they so mixed up with vanity, so tempted by pride, so haunted by concupiscence; never breathed they so tainted an atmosphere, or were kissed by such traitorous friends, or were subjected to such sights of shame, or were clad in such blood-stained garments, as in the centuries upon and in which St. Philip came into the world.”
Florence, St. Philip’s birthplace, was the leading city of Italy. The social and political life of Florence, ruled by the Medici family, were just as decadent and damaging to religion as that of some of the Church’s prelates.
Newman writes: “Florence was at that time the most intellectual, the most magnificent city of Italy. About a century before, one of its richest merchants and bankers had become its virtual ruler, and had transmitted his power to his descendants, who still possessed it. The history of this family is intimately connected with that of the Holy See; at times they were its enemies: they ended in giving to it three or four princes of their own blood to fill it: but whether in alliance with it or at war, whether at Florence or at Rome, they exerted, at least for many years, an influence prejudicial to its real, that is, its religious well-being.”


In the wake of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks Florence became the haven for Eastern scholars and the place for revival of classical learning. The Medici became patrons of the arts; public schools were founded; Greek was studied, and a library was founded at the Dominican Convent of St. Mark.
Newman comments that this revival of learning, in itself good, was followed with intoxication for newly found knowledge, as well for discoveries and the news of riches in North and South America. According to Newman the Church was lacking “in order and discipline, in pastoral vigilance, in the sanctity of her individual members” to meet the challenges of the day, to put in perspective the good things achieved through human learning, science, works of genius and discoveries.
“So it was at the time I speak of; what was beautiful was placed before what was true; or rather, the beauty of the creature was preferred to the transcendent beauty of the Creator. Nature and art, the rich material, the creative mind, were suffered to invade and oppress the Church, instead of ministering to her. The world entered her sacred precincts forcibly, and embellished them after its own fashion. It addressed itself to her rulers, who were already enervated by the homage of nations; and it attempted to persuade them to disguise the awful Bride of the Lamb in an old heathen garb, of which her very coming had long since been the destruction.”
Under wealthy Florentine families, Florence became a pagan city given to festivals and carnivals with their accompanying excesses and vices, political feuds and a misguided renaissance. “Good and evil, sacred prerogatives and sinful hearts, were brought into close contact, marvellously and awfully. The Sovereign Pontiffs were familiarly dealt with, and then slandered behind their backs by the profligate artists whom they had benefited.”
In this worldly environment God raised holy men and women to turn people’s hearts back to God. “Holy men grew up and won their crowns, out of families on which history has set its note of shame. Two saints, contemporaries of St. Philip, will occur to you, my dear Fathers, as instances of this portent:—St. Francis Borgia, the third Father-General of the Society of Jesus, bears a name, shameful in the history of Rome; St. Mary Magdalene of the Pazzi came of a Florentine stock infamous  for a deed of combined sacrilege, bloodshed, and treachery perhaps without a parallel.”
It was in these times and circumstances that two other reformers came to the scene: Savonarola and shortly afterwards Philip. The next short essay will recount Newman’s description of Savonarola’s effort to reform Florence. In closing, however, a parallel should be drawn with our times in the Western world where the old gods of mammon and pleasure reign supreme, and science often becomes a pseudo-religion. Right reason succumbs to feelings and public opinion, and piety to sensual gratification. The institutions of marriage, family and government are overturned by a new tyranny of relativism.  These times have given birth to new saints such as St. Josemaría Escrivá, St. Gianna Barreta, St. John Paul II and St. Theresa of Calcutta, who rejected this modern paganism: defending the right use of freedom to love God and mankind, upholding the dignity of every human being and sanctifying family life and work.


St. Philip Neri: The Humorous Side of Humility

We live in a world that takes itself too seriously. I would hazard a guess that many people reading this piece struggle with this taking of one’s self to seriously, just as I do. It turns out, there is a saint to help us: St. Philip Neri. Today the Church celebrates this humorous, charitable, obedient, and joyful saint. He was born in 1515 in Florence, Italy. He spent many years studying and serving as a layman before being ordained a priest. He had a profound mystical experience that led him to serve in hospitals and he felt such great love of God that he preached to the poor and the rich alike in his desire to bring the world to Him.
St. Philip developed quite a following. He founded a confraternity alongside his confessor, Persiano Rossa, called the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents. The confraternity served the needs of poor pilgrims who came to Rome throughout the year and during jubilee years. St. Philip was ordained in 1551 and he also founded the Congregation of the Oratory, which was a group of secular priests.
St. Philip was known for unpredictable behavior that surprised a great many people:
He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. One man came to the Oratory just to make fun of it. Philip wouldn’t let the others throw him out or speak against him. He told them to be patient and eventually the man became a Dominican. On the other hand, when he met a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip didn’t try gentle words, but grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession.

It is clear that St. Philip could see the need for different approaches depending on the situation. It demonstrated his ability of discernment and his willingness to do what was necessary to bring others to God.
The virtue that enjoyed pride-of-place for St. Philip Neri was humility. He knew that humility was the only way for people to truly find and serve God. His approach to teaching humility to others was unique and often was accompanied by a humorous side. It is obvious that much of pride and anger stems from an overemphasis on self and that can often include an over dependence on seriousness. The Christian life is one of joy and being too serious points too often to sinful pride, which is destructive.
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. 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.
Ibid.
His approach to humility is one that many of us can learn from in our own journey to holiness. How can St. Philip’s approach to humility guide us?

Properly order our God given gifts.

Each person on this earth who is created in the image and likeness of God, possesses unique gifts that are to be used to further the Kingdom of God. The danger for all of us is to rely too heavily on our own worth or abilities rather than a dependence on and gratitude to God for those gifts. For instance, St. Philip Neri knew that a beautiful sermon and the gift of Homiletics could come with pride and an over-dependence on one’s own insight or intellectual capacity. In order to save this priest from these temptations and dangers, St. Philip taught him that his gifts in writing and delivering sermons rested with God. It is amusing to think of this priest giving the same Homily “six times in a row”, as the parishioners looked on in confusion, or even perhaps, boredom. Whether we are able to write, sing, build, paint, sculpt, deliver speeches, study, or do any other manner of things, we must remember that God has given us those gifts in His service and not our own. Pride in our own abilities often blinds us to the mission God has given us and can impede our journey to sainthood.

We must laugh at ourselves.

Every single one of us has been embarrassed or committed some kind of error. How we react speaks volumes about our progress on the path to holiness. Do we become enraged at ourselves or others? Do we make excuses? In reality, all of us have these reactions from time-to-time. As we progress in the spiritual life, however, we begin to recognize our own limitations. We also accept that we will make mistakes and so will everyone else. As we come to this realization, we stop judging ourselves and others so harshly. We begin to laugh it off. We don’t get angry, frustrated, or make excuses. We get to a point where we can laugh at ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Being too serious in all matters leads to various deadly sins. Pride and anger have led to murder and other serious sins since the Fall. We don’t have to use a weapon to kill or injure others; we only have to open our mouths to do grave and irrevocable harm to those around us.

Be willing to accept constructive criticism.

‘Everyone’s a critic’. We all struggle to focus on our own faults. There is a reason Christ tells us to focus on our own “plank” over our brother’s “speck”. When our eyes are always turned in judgment towards others we cannot possibly move forward towards our eschatological goal of Heaven. Every single one of us will be on the receiving end of criticism. It may be justified and it may be unjust. In most cases the justice of it cannot be fought, so we must learn to take it in, ponder it, and either use it as a teaching tool, or discard it. As hard as it may be at the time, much criticism is born of love. This is especially true in marriage. Spouses who love one another want to fulfill their vocation of leading one another to Heaven. At times that may include much needed constructive criticism. We must not assume that others are automatically trying to hurt us. Instead, we need to remember that someone who truly loves us desires our good and we need to take into consideration what they are trying to tell us. It isn’t easy, but it is a response that can be born out of habit, so that we may attain humility.
Humility is a struggle for all of us. St. Philip Neri’s unique and comical approach to the spiritual life and the fostering of this virtue can help each one of us on our own journey to the Most Holy Trinity.  If we are taking ourselves too seriously then we need to take a step back and examine ourselves. We must be willing to accept our weaknesses, so that we can fall on Christ. That takes humility. When we make a mistake we need to laugh and move on. We are on a joyful path, not one of anger and frustration. We must learn to accept constructive criticism born of love, so that we can be purified and made holy through our vocations. May St. Philip Neri’s joyful, humorous, and charitable example guide us to Our Lord. St. Philip Neri, ora pro nobis.