Last week we remembered the Ascension, the day our Lord returned to Heaven but not before promising to send the Holy Spirit. And today on Pentecost we remember when the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit as in tongues of fire. Now Wednesday of this week is the Feast day of St. Philip Neri, he’s one of my favorites. For the collect of that Mass we will pray about the Holy Spirit as a holy fire. We will pray, “O God … graciously grant that the Holy Spirit may kindle in us that fire which he wonderfully filled the heart of St. Philip Neri.”
Now some have called St. Philip Neri, Mr. Happy go Lucky. He had a great sense of humor, sometimes shaving off half of his beard. Or making some design in the stubble of his beard. He was eccentric but at the very same time he was also very holy and humble. He was a priest who lived in Rome during the 16th century. And the beginning of that century marked a very low point in our Church’s history. There was corruption, priests were not celebrating Mass or the sacraments, and people didn’t pray, or even know their faith. But Philip Neri helped to change that, through his joyous and holy example, he brought many back to the faith. And for that he’s been called the Second Apostle of Rome, St. Paul being the first.
A certain bishop once visited Philip Neri for dinner. This Bishop was not the best example of Christian charity. And to help serve the meal Philip used the assistance of a monkey; however, the monkey was dressed to look like the Bishop. The monkey wore a tiny miter on his head and carried a tiny crosier. I’m not sure the Bishop got the message. Philip’s penances given in the confessional were sometimes creative. Once a prideful young man came to him to confess his sins, for penance the young man was made to carry a tiny dog wearing a big pink bow. The young man had to carry this dog all around Rome for a month. This is not something a young man would do at that time. It would have been a very humbling experience. Because of his joyful holiness many were attracted to St. Philip Neri. His room would always be filled with visitors seeking his advice, his prayers, and the sacraments, the sacrament of reconciliation especially. He brought people closer and closer to our Lord.
Philip Neri arranged spiritual talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents. He would also organize day long pilgrimages where he and his band of followers would visit the seven Basilicas of Rome where they would pray in each one of them. And in between the visits to the churches there would be parades, music, picnics and lots of laughter. Now because of his exuberant joy he became suspect, so he was investigated. The higher ups wondered, “Why is this man so happy?” It’s a sad day when holy joy becomes suspect, but nothing sinful was ever found, he exhibited true Christian joy, a fruit the Holy Spirit. Some of Philip’s followers became priests and they came to live together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He’s one of the most influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself.
As I said before the collect, the opening prayer, for the Feast day of Philip Neri, speaks of the Holy Spirit. That prayer asks God the Father in his love to kindle in us the fire of the Holy Spirit who so filled the heart of Philip Neri. This prayer refers to Philip’s personal Pentecost. As a young man Philip would walk to the catacombs every night and pray to the Holy Spirit. One night he felt a violent inrush of the Spirit and with this inrush he felt a tremendous heat and his heart began to beat wildly. From that time forward, for more than fifty years, any time Philip became lost in deep prayer his heart would beat wildly and loudly. So loud, that those close to him could hear it. At his death they found that his heart was twice the size of a normal heart pushing two of his ribs outward. His enlarged heart, however, never affected his health.
Many times when we try to explain the Holy Spirit the words heat and fire are used as an explanation of the Spirit’s power. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). Few words in the English language get our attention like “fire.” People follow fire engines, and if not stopped, fire will devour everything in its path. It’s relentless, and the more it consumes, the more unstoppable it becomes. Fire breeds fire. It cannot be satisfied. As long as there is fuel and the conditions are right it will continue to burn. And this is the image that Jesus chooses to convey the nature of his love for us. “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.”
Now in the Old Testament Moses too spoke of this fire. Some of Moses’ final words to the Israelites were these: “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God!” (Deut 4:24). Jealous because God will not be content until we find our rest and satisfaction only in Him. Consuming because he removes all that is sinful and unworthy in us. At Pentecost this divine fire touched the disciples. At baptism and confirmation this same fire touches us. And this fire of the Holy Spirit, like all fires needs to be sustained if it is to burn. It needs to be sustained. And it is the Eucharist that feeds this flame within our heart and soul. The Eucharist is the most perfect way to sustain the fire of the Holy Spirit. There are other ways but the Eucharist is the most perfect way.
For St. Philip Neri the Eucharist was his joy. Sometime the Masses he celebrated would take up to four hours to complete. After the consecration he’d just stand there lost in thought at the great mystery before him on the altar. His altar boys learned to take a break at this point, they’d leave for a two hour coffee break, leaving a “do not disturb” note on the chapel door. They’d come back after two hours to help finish the Mass. And at night he’d spend hours in prayer before the Tabernacle. The Blessed Sacrament fed the flame of the Holy Spirit within his heart. And the proof is his life where we see all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and joy, most especially joy.
Everything available to the saints and those first disciples at Pentecost is available to us. The Eucharist adored outside of Mass and received worthily at Mass will keep the flame of the Holy Spirit burning hot and bright within our Heart and Soul. Catholics should be the most joyful and spirit filled Christians around.
“O God … graciously grant that the Holy Spirit may kindle in us that fire which he wonderfully filled the heart of St. Philip Neri.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley