Joy is the leading feature of the Paschal Season—a supernatural joy which springs from our delight at seeing the glorious triumph of our Emmanuel, and from the happiness we feel at our own deliverance from the bonds of death. This interior joy was the characteristic of the Saint whom we honor today. His heart was ever full of a jubilant enthusiasm for what regards God; so that we could truly apply to him those words of Scripture: A secure mind is like a continual feast (Prov. 15: 15). One of his later disciples, the illustrious Father Faber, tells us in his beautiful treatise, Growth in Holiness, that cheerfulness is one of the chief means for advancing in Christian perfection. We will therefore welcome with gladness and veneration the benevolent and light-hearted St. Philip Neri, the Apostle of Rome, and one of the greatest Saints produced by the Church in the 16th century.
Love of God—but a love of the most ardent kind, and one that communicated itself to all that came near him—was our Saint's characteristic virtue. All the Saints loved God; for the love of God is the first and greatest of the commandments: but St. Philip's whole life was, in an especial manner, the fulfillment of this divine precept. His entire existence seemed to be but one long transport of love for his Creator; and had it not been for a miracle of God's power and goodness, this burning love would have soon put an end to his mortal career. He was in his 29th year, when one day—it was within the Octave of Pentecost—he was seized with such a vehemence of divine charity that two of his ribs broke, thus making room for the action of the heart to respond freely to the intensity of the love of the soul. The fracture was never healed; it caused a protrusion which was distinctly observable; and owing to this miraculous enlargement of the region of the heart, St. Philip was enabled to live fifty years more, during which time he loved his God with a fervor and strength which would do honor to one already in Heaven.
This seraph in human flesh was a living answer to the insults heaped upon the Catholic Church by the so-called Reformation. Luther and Calvin had called Holy Church the harlot of Babylon; and yet She had, at that very time, such children as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Philip Neri of Rome, to offer to the admiration of mankind. But Protestantism cared little or nothing for piety or charity; its great object was throwing off the yoke of restraint. Under pretense of religious liberty, it persecuted them that adhered to the true Faith; it forced itself by violence where it could not enter by seduction; but it never aimed at or thought of leading men to love their God. The result was that wheresoever it imposed its errors, devotedness was at an end—we mean that devotedness which leads man to make sacrifices for God or for his neighbor. A very long period of time elapsed after the Reformation before Protestantism ever gave a thought to the infidels who abounded in various parts of the globe... but anything like the devotedness of Catholic institutions is an impossibility for Protestantism, were it only for this reason, that its principles are opposed to the Evangelical Counsels, which are the great sources of the spirit of sacrifice, and are prompted by a motive of the love of God.
Glory, then, to St. Philip Neri, one of the worthiest representatives of charity in the 16th century! It was owing to his zeal that Rome and Christendom at large were replenished with a new life by the frequentation of the Sacraments and by the exercises of Catholic piety. His word, his very look, used to excite people to devotion. His memory is still held in deep veneration, especially in Rome, where his Feast was kept with the greatest solemnity. He shares with Ss. Peter and Paul the honor of being Patron of the Holy City. Formerly, on his Feast, the Pope went, with great solemnity, to the Church of St. Mary in Vallicella, and paid the debt of gratitude which the Holy See owes to the Saint who accomplished such great things for the glory of our Holy Mother the Church.
St. Philip had the gift of miracles; and though seeking to be forgotten and despised, he was continually surrounded by people who besought him to pray for them, either in their temporal or spiritual concerns. Death itself was obedient to his command, as in the case of the young prince Paul Massimo. The young prince, when breathing his last, desired that St. Philip should be sent for, in order that he might assist him to die well. The Saint was offering Mass at the time. As soon as the Holy Sacrifice was over, he repaired to the palace; but he was too late—he found the father, sister and the whole family in tears. The young prince had died after an illness of 65 days, which he had borne with most edifying patience. St. Philip fell upon his knees; and, after a fervent prayer, he put his hand on the head of the corpse, and called the prince by his name. Thus awakened from the sleep of death, Paul opened his eyes, and looking at St. Philip, said to him, "My Father!" He then added these words: "I only wished to go to confession." The assistants left the room, and St. Philip remained alone with the prince. After a few moments the family were called back; and in their presence, Paul began to speak to St. Philip regarding his mother and sister who had been taken from him by death, and whom he loved with the most tender affection. During the conversation, the prince's face regained all it had lost by sickness. His animation was that of one in perfect health. The Saint then asked him if he would wish to die again. "Oh yes," answered the prince, "most willingly; for I should then see my mother and sister in Heaven." "Take then,” said St. Philip, "take thy departure for Heaven, and pray to the Lord for me." At these words, the young prince expired once more, and entered into the joys of eternal life, leaving his family to mourn his departure, and venerate a Saint such as Philip.
He was almost continually visited by Our Lord with raptures and ecstasies; he was gifted with the spirit of prophecy, and could read the secrets of the conscience. His virtues were such as to draw souls to him by an irresistible charm. The youth of Rome, rich and poor, used to flock to him. Some he warned against danger; others he saved, after they had fallen. The poor and sick were the object of his unceasing care. He seemed to be everywhere in the city by his works of zeal, which gave an impulse to piety that has never been forgotten.
St. Philip was convinced that one of the principal means for maintaining the Christian spirit is preaching the word of God: hence he was most anxious to provide the faithful with apostolic men, who would draw them to God by good and solid preaching. He established, under the name of The Oratory, an institute, the object of which is to encourage Christian piety among the people. By founding it, St. Philip aimed at securing the services, zeal, and talent of priests who are not called to the Religious life, but who, by uniting their labors together, would produce great good to the souls of men.
Thus did he afford to priests, whose vocation did not lead them to the Religious state, the great advantages of a common rule and mutual good example, which are such powerful aids both in the service of God and in the exercise of pastoral duties. But the holy Apostle was a man of too much faith not to have an esteem of the Religious life as a state of perfection. He never lost an opportunity of encouraging a vocation to that holy state. The Religious Orders were indebted to him for so many members, that his intimate friend and admirer, St. Ignatius of Loyola, used playfully to compare him to a bell, which calls others to the chapel (of the Religious life), yet never goes in itself!
The awful crisis of the 16th century, through which the Christian world had to pass, and which robbed the Catholic Church of so many provinces, was a source of keenest grief to St. Philip during the whole of his life. His heart bled at seeing so many thousands of souls fall into the abyss of error and heresy. He took the deepest interest in the efforts that were made to reclaim those that had been led astray by the pretended Reformation. He kept a watchful eye on the tactics wherewith Protestantism sought to maintain its ground. The Centuries of Magdeburg, for example, suggested to his zeal a counterbalance of truth. The Centuries was a series of historical essays, whereby the Reformers sought to prove that the Catholic Church had changed the ancient faith, and introduced superstitious practices in the place of those that were used in the early ages of Christianity. A work like this, with its falsified quotations, its misrepresentation and its frequent invention of facts, was destined to do great injury; and St. Philip resolved to meet it by a work of profound erudition—a true history, compiled from authentic sources. One of the fathers of his Oratory, Caesar Baronius, was just the man for such an undertaking; and St. Philip ordered him to take the field against the enemy. The Ecclesiastical Annals were the fruit of this happy thought; and Baronius himself, at the beginning of Book VIII, acknowledges that St. Philip was the originator of the work. Centuries have passed away since then. It is easy for us, with the means which we now have, to detect certain imperfections in the Annals; at the same time, it is acknowledged on all sides that they form by far the truest and finest History of the Church of the first 1200 years—which is as far as the learned Cardinal went. Heresy felt the injury it must needs sustain by such a History. The sickly and untrustworthy erudition of the Centuriators could not stand before an honest statement of facts; and we may safely assert that the progress of Protestantism was checked by the Annals of Baronius, which showed that the Church was then as She had ever been—the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3: 15). St. Philip's sanctity and Baronius' learning secured the victory. Numerous conversions soon followed, consoling the Church for the losses She had sustained. And if in more recent times many have returned to the ancient Faith, it is but fair to attribute the movement (especially the Oxford movement), in part at least, to the success of the historical method begun by the Annals.
Let us now read the liturgical account of the virtues and holy deeds of the Apostle of Rome in the 16th century:
St. Philip Neri was born at Florence, of pious and respectable parents. From his very childhood he gave evident promise of future sanctity. Whilst yet a young man, he gave up an ample fortune which he inherited from an uncle, and went to Rome, where he studied theology and philosophy, and devoted himself wholly to the service of Jesus Christ. Such was his temperance that he frequently passed three days without eating anything. He spent much time in watching and prayer. He frequently made the visit of the Seven Churches of the City of Rome (St. Philip Neri is credited with starting this devotion, which consists of visiting the following seven Churches in one day: St. Peter's, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Sebastian Outside-the-Walls, St. John Lateran, Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem, St. Laurence Outside-the-Walls, and St. Mary Major), and was in the habit of spending the night in the Cemetery of Calixtus, in the contemplation of heavenly things. Being ordained priest under obedience, he devoted himself without reserve to saving souls, and even to the last day of his life he was assiduous in hearing confessions. He was the spiritual father of a countless number of souls; and in order to nourish them with the daily food of God’s Word, with the frequent reception of the Sacraments, with application to prayer, and with other pious exercises, he instituted the Congregation of the Oratory.
He was ever languishing with the love of God, wherewith he was wounded. Such was the ardor that glowed within him, that his heart was not able to keep within its place, and his breast was miraculously enlarged by the breaking and expansion of two of his ribs. Sometimes, when celebrating Mass, or engaged in fervent prayer, he was seen to be raised up in the air, and encircled with a bright light. He served the needy and the poor with an all-providing charity. He was once rewarded by a visit from an angel, who appeared to him in a beggar's garb, and received an alms from him. On another occasion, when carrying loaves to the poor during the night, he fell into a deep hole, but was drawn forth by an angel without having sustained any injury. So humble was he, that he had an abiding dread of everything that savored of honor; and he was most resolute in refusing every ecclesiastical dignity, though the highest offices were more than once offered to him.
He possessed the gift of prophecy, and could miraculously read the inmost thoughts of others' souls. Throughout his whole life he preserved his chastity unsullied. He had also a supernatural power of distinguishing those who were chaste from those who were not so. He sometimes appeared to persons who were at a distance, and assisted them in moments of danger. He restored to health many that were sick and at death's door. He also restored a dead man to life. He was frequently favored with apparitions of heavenly spirits and of the Blessed Mother of God. He saw the souls of several persons ascending, amidst great brightness, into Heaven. At length, being in his eightieth year, he slept in the Lord; it was in the year of our Redemption 1595, the eighth of the Kalends of June (May 25), the Feast of Corpus Christi, after having offered Mass with extraordinary spiritual joy, and at the very hour which he had foretold, which was shortly after midnight. The miracles wherewith he had been honored being authentically proved, he was canonized by Pope Gregory XV.
Thy whole life, O St. Philip, was one long act of love of Jesus; but it was also one untiring effort to make others know and love Him, and thus secure the end for which they were created. Thou wast the indefatigable Apostle of Rome for forty years, and no one could approach thee without receiving something of the divine ardor that filled thy heart. We too would fain receive of thy fullness of devotion; and therefore we pray thee to teach us how to love our Risen Jesus. It is not enough that we adore Him and rejoice in His triumph—we must love Him; for He has permitted us to celebrate the various mysteries of His life on earth, with a view to our seeing more and more clearly how deserving He is of our warmest love. It is love that will lead us to the full appreciation of His Resurrection, that bright mystery which shows us all the riches of the Sacred Heart. The new life which He put on by rising from the tomb, teaches us more eloquently than ever how tenderly He loves us, and how earnestly He importunes us to love Him in return. Pray for us, St. Philip, that our heart and our flesh may rejoice in the Living God (Ps. 83: 2). Now that we have relished the mystery of the Pasch, lead us to that of the Ascension; prepare our souls to receive the Holy Ghost at Pentecost; and when the august Mystery of the Eucharist beams upon us, with all its loveliness, in the approaching festival of Corpus Christi, the very day that ushered thee unto the unveiled vision of thy Jesus, intercede for us, that we may receive and relish that Living Bread, which giveth life to the world (John 6: 33).
The sanctity that shone on thee, O St. Philip, was marked by the impetuosity of thy soul's longing after God; and all they that spoke with thee, quickly imbibed thy spirit—which, in truth, is the one that contents our Redeemer's Heart. Thou hadst the talent of winning souls, and leading them to perfection by the path of confidence and generosity. In this great work, thy method consisted in having none; thus imitating the Apostles and ancient Fathers, and trusting to the power of God's own word. It was by thee that the frequentation of the Sacraments was restored—that surest indication of the Christian spirit. Pray for the faithful of our times, and come to the assistance of so many souls that are anxiously pursuing systems of spirituality which have been coined by the hands of men, and which but too frequently retard or even impede the intimate union of the creature with his Creator.
Thy love of the Church, O St. Philip, was most fervent: there can be no true sanctity without it. Though thy contemplation was of the sublimest kind, yet it did not make thee lose sight of the cruel trials which this holy Spouse of Christ had to endure in those sad times. The successful efforts of heresy stimulated they zeal; obtain for us that keen sympathy for our holy Faith which will make us take an interest in all that concerns its progress. It is not enough for us that we save our own souls; we must, moreover, ardently desire and do our utmost to obtain the advancement of God's kingdom on earth, the extirpation of heresy, and the exaltation of our Holy Mother the Church. If these are not our dispositions, how can we call ourselves children of God? May thy example urge us to take to heart the sacred cause of our common Mother. Pray too for the Church militant, of which thou wast one of the bravest soldiers.
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