St Philip Neri was a king of improvised comedy. Known for his people skills, biographers highlight his practical jokes and witty repartee. These gifts gave sparkle to his preaching. A street evangelist called Savonarola, a Dominican, inspired him. St Philip also learned the art of dialogue by imitating the ‘ardor and child-like simplicity’ of Blessed Colombini. While one of his favourite books was the story of a priest called Piovano Arlotto -known for his ability to provoke laughter.
St Philip realised that wholesome humour and personal holiness were connected. He discovered that the way to introduce the Gospel was to start with familiar examples, drawn from daily life. He challenged his listeners, by appealing to their imagination, so that they could see their lives with fresh eyes.
Known as the ‘Columbus of the catacombs’, St Philip, explored the graves of the early church martyrs in Rome -praying for a deeper personal conversion to Christ.This was no morbid preoccupation. It formed within him a wellspring of faith. St Philip’s desire for Jesus led him to have a ‘Pentecost experience‘ which he described as an ‘inner’ burning. This reminds us of the comment made by the disciples on the Emmaus road.
The Saint understood this as the purifying love of God. It made him focus on the sacraments of reconciliation and the eucharist -as the means of growing in the love of God and neighbour.
The community St Philip set up, in the 16th Century, was a place of laughter and warmth. The arts, especially music, were particularly encouraged. Such creativity was, for him, the Holy Spirit’s presence. St John Paul II, in an Address on the 400th Anniversary of St Phillip’s death, urged his 21st Century conferes to imitate his example:
May St Philip, a man lovable and generous, holy, chaste, and humble, an apostle both active and contemplative…remain the constant model…He transmits to all Oratorians a programme and a lifestyle which still retains today a special relevance. The so-called quadrilateral -humility, charity, prayer and joy- remains always a most solid foundation on which to erect the internal structure of one’s spiritual life.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can recognise the seeds of St Philip’s thought being sown in the mind of St John Henry Newman. As an Anglican clergyman, he wrote this in his first Parochial and Plain Sermon entitled: Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness:
Outward acts, done on principle, create inward habits…impressing our hearts with a heavenly character.
Fr Peter Conley