If we had to choose the one saint who always had a funny story to tell, or a harmless practical joke to play, it would be St. Philip Neri, who lived in the 16th century. His sense of humor was for a reason – he said there were plenty of gloomy saints – he wanted to use laughter and good-natured fun as a way of growing closer to God.
Philip’s life wasn’t always easy. His father was a financial failure, and when he was a young man of eighteen, Philip was sent to work with an older cousin who was a successful businessman. During this time, Philip found a favorite place to pray up in the fissure of a mountain that had been turned into a chapel. We don't know anything specific about his conversion but during these hours of prayer he decided to leave worldly success behind and dedicate his life to God.
After thanking his cousin, he went to Rome in 1533 where he was the live-in tutor of the sons of a fellow Florentine. He studied philosophy and theology, but he really wanted to live a life of prayer. During one of his times of prayer, he felt as though a globe of light had entered into him. This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers.
In 1548 Philip formed a kind of confraternity with other laymen to minister to pilgrims who came to Rome without food or shelter. The spiritual director of the confraternity convinced Philip that he could do even more work as a priest, so after completing his studies, Philip was ordained in 1551.
At his new home, the church of San Girolamo, he learned to love to hear confessions. Young men especially found in him the wisdom and direction they needed to grow spiritually. But Philip began to realize that these young men also needed guidance during their daily lives. So Philip began to ask the young men to come by in the early afternoon when they would discuss spiritual readings and then stay for prayer in the evening. The numbers of the men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest Buonsignore Cacciaguerra gave a more formal structure to the meetings and built a room called the Oratory to hold them in.
Philip understood that it wasn't enough to tell somebody not to do something – they had to have something to do in its place. So at Carnival time, when crowds were involved in all sorts of things that could lead to trouble, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches with a picnic accompanied by instrumental music for the mid-day break. After walking twelve miles in one day everyone was too tired to be tempted!
Eventually, Philip’s success with young people started to make some of the other priests jealous, and the good work he was doing was threatened. But eventually Philip and the others who worked with him were seen to be doing God’s work, so they were able to continue. In fact, St. Philip wouldn’t allow a single bad thing to be said about the people who had tried to destroy him. Eventually he and the others who worked with him realized they needed a center for their activities, and they were able to take up residence at what was known as “Chiesa Nuova,” or the “New Church.”
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 always had a humorous side. 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. When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission -- if he wore the hair shirt outside his clothes! The man obeyed and found humility in the jokes and name-calling he received.
And Philip carried out his own mortifications to learn humility. There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to seem. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books.
But Philip was very serious about prayer, spending hours in prayer. He was so easily carried away that he refused to preach in public and could not celebrate Mass with others around. But he when asked how to pray his answer was, "Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you."
St. Philip Neri died in 1595 after a long illness, at the age of eighty years.
Whenever we have a parish pilgrimage to Rome, we always visit the magnificent but charming Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, better known as the Chiesa Nuova, or New Church. This served as the center of operation for St. Philip Neri, the fun-loving saint who combined humor with holiness, and whose work resulted in the foundation of the Oratorians.
O God, who didst exalt thy blessed Confessor Philip to the glory of thy Saints: mercifully grant that we, who rejoice in his festival, may learn to follow rightly the example of his virtues; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.