St. Philip Neri and the Imitation of Christ
St. Philip Neri was a sixteenth-century figure (1515-1595) who became a mystic and missionary, a priest and a prophet, a founder of the Oratory and a counselor of souls right where he found himself: namely, post-Reformation Rome, so deeply in need of reform and spiritual renewal. As we commemorate the Feast of St. Philip Neri—May 26th being the anniversary of his death—it is fitting to ponder an excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, since He never made it as far as the Philippines even if he had a deep longing to become a missionary to the distant east. St. Philip’s followers are sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘Philippians’ but Rome was the mission field in which he labored.
Perhaps St. Paul can provide a point of entry into understanding St. Philip Neri’s importance for us: “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us…Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” (St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:17; 4:9)
On a first hearing, this exhortation may sound audacious and arrogant. By a gut intuition we may presume that the Christian is not supposed to hold himself up for imitation. This is true in one sense, but these lines get at a key theme in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Only the man wholly devoted to the imitation of Christ can say humbly and sincerely: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul not only said this, he meant it and Philip took him at his word. Philip was famous for his humility which often led him to say: “Be sure of this, that I am a man like my neighbors, and nothing more” and “How many poor little girls will be greater in Paradise than I shall be”. Thus he did not tire to remind those who looked to him for wisdom and guidance: “Be humble; think little of yourselves”. Precisely because it was clear that he was imitating Christ, others, were drawn to imitate him like iron drawn to a magnet.
It can rightly be said that a priest is always looking to the example of another while at the same time becoming an example. A priest, like John the Baptist, spends his life pointing to another: the Lamb of God! But in the process, that gesture of pointing becomes compelling and magnetic. That is, imitation leads to imitation. A priest is an alter Christus (another Christ) who is called to draw followers by example, by joy, by fervor, by pastoral solicitude and the panoply of virtues of a priestly heart. It would be an understatement to say that Philip drew a following. Without very much trying, he gave rise to a circle of followers who longed to live in close proximity to him. His charisma was magnetic and young, emerging adults trying to sort out their path in life were drawn to him for direction. He became a sought after confessor for people of all states of life and ages. He had a profound eagerness to help the laity understand their mission in the world through the pursuit of holiness. Many young men would come to imitate his priestly zeal by themselves becoming priests of various sorts, including joining the multitude of religious orders of the day. A set of his disciples became the first fathers of the Congregation of the Oratory: a band of urban priest apostles, working in concert for the care of souls (preaching, confessions, celebration of the Holy Mass and pastoral accompaniment) and the evangelization of culture (patronage of the arts, study and writing, fostering community, public presence and commitment to the life of the city). This form of has spread to more than 50 cities around the globe and nearly a dozen in the US.
Paul speaks above of the fruit following his example is peace with God. This beautifully dovetails with what Christ speaks about in the Gospel today: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (see John 14). This peace is really on offer in Christ. It is a peace given in relationship—a relationship of imitation—a relationship that changes everything. You see, when we imitate Christ’s posture as a Beloved Son of the Father, we ourselves learn to be embraced by the peace that the Father so desires to give.
Please join us in imitating St. Philip Neri as a patron and example for our life together as a parish in this great city of Minneapolis. Perhaps we can together use this prayer:
O Holy St. Philip Neri, Patron Saint of joy, you who trusted Scripture’s promise that the Lord is always at hand and that we need not have anxiety about anything, in your compassion heal our worries and sorrows and lift the burdens from our hearts. We come to you as one whose heart swells with abundant love for God and all creation. Hear us, we pray, especially in this need… (Share your request…) Keep us safe through your loving intercession, and may the joy of the Holy Spirit which filled your heart, St. Philip, transform our lives and bring us peace. Amen.
Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory Be…
Mary, Cause of Our Joy, pray for us. St. Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome and Founder of the Oratory, pray for our parish and the eventual establishment of an Oratory here in Northeast Minneapolis.
P.S. If you’re looking for a way to learn more about St. Philip Neri, look no further than Formed.org which you can access for free using the parish access code (PBGWTD). As summer sets in, this is a perfect resource to log onto to continue growing in your faith. You can use a computer, tablet or phone to access a truly amazing body of streaming video, audio and e-book content. In particular, look for Session 3 of the True Reformers video series focusing on St. Philip Neri as well as a feature length film made in Italy on St. Philip Neri entitled, ‘I Prefer Heaven’. Going forward, we will offer many more opportunities to learn about St. Philip Neri, Bl. John Henry Newman and the meaning of the Oratory. Stay tuned and thank you for your prayers for God’s will to be done!