Attention Vegetarians! Today’s saint is for you!
Today the church remembers a goofball saint whose brilliance was often wrapped in a joke: St. Philip Neri, Jokester, Vegetarian, and Confessor of the Church.
St. Philip Neri was born in a post-Renaissance world ripe with schism. The Reformation began while he was an infant, and the church landscape was changing rapidly in his formative years.
As he entered his late teens he abandoned dreams of going into business, and instead moved to Rome to study Theology and Philosophy, diving deeply into the spiritual life. The waters he found there, though, were not to his liking, and though he enjoyed his studies he decided not to become ordained at that time.
Instead, St. Philip became what most of the church is: an invested layperson with a keen spiritual life.
St. Philip’s problem, though, was that everyone liked him, and his popularity was making it harder and harder for him to turn down ordination. This was especially true as the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s was starting to re-imagine what the Roman church would look like (and people wanted St. Philip Neri to be a part of that shaping).
St. Philip was eventually ordained and became what too few pastors were (and, maybe, are?): an outstanding preacher and confessor. He used image and metaphor and allusion to tie together disparate parts of the faith into lovely and meaningful sermons.
And, he was funny!
His two favorite books were the New Testament and a joke book. Seriously.
He founded The Oratory, a group of priests living together, that included amongst their rituals of Mass, prayer, and fasting, times to “just chat” and compose hymns and speeches together. While this looked suspicious to many in the church, it was eventually accepted as a movement that embodied the ideals of the faith.
St. Philip Neri was also known as a lover of animals, and is often depicted in icon form holding his pet dog, a Maltese. He was an advocate for vegetarianism, and would often free captured birds he found in the market or on the street…and then the birds tended to follow him around. He went so far in his defense of all living things, that he wouldn’t even swat away flies, but constantly left the windows open so that they could escape.
St. Philip Neri died on this day in 1595 while he was hearing Confessions. He was quickly beatified, and is still held in high regard across the church catholic for his keen intellect and his gaiety.
As an example of his fun nature, he one time told a woman with a propensity for gossip that, as penance, she had to throw a bag of feathers in the air and pick up every one. She protested, saying it would be impossible. “Ah,” St. Philip said, “you see, that’s exactly what it’s like with gossip. Once you let those words out, you cannot gather them back in!”
St. Philip Neri is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. After all, it’s just life, folks…
-historical bits gleaned from Knoenig-Bricker’s 365 Saints
-icon written by Br Robert Lentz and can be purchased at Trinitystores.com