Memorial of St. Philip Neri, Priest (May 26th)
Philippians 4:4-9; John 17:20-26
The readings today speak of two of the greatest gifts we can receive from our heavenly Father – peace and unity. St. Paul reminds us that it is the pursuit of excellence that leads us to God and the peace only he can give. In the gospel, Jesus teaches that perfection is nothing less than unity with the Father; again, a gift that only God can give.
When I think of excellence and perfection in life, I can’t help but think of the saints, for these are the men and women who went out of their way to achieve both. I’m especially glad that we remember St. Philip Neri today, for his life provides a view of sanctity that is too often missing from the popular imagination.
I say that because it seems to me that most people in our time see the saints as stained glass stereotypes; living in a perpetual state of sadness and gloom, cloistered from the world and everything in it. It’s as if they really believe the old pop song lyrics, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
That’s why I like St. Philip Neri; he is exactly the opposite. Far from sadness and gloom, St. Philip was noted for his cheerfulness, going so far as to say that “Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and helps us to persevere. A servant of God should always to be in good spirits.” And far from running away from the world, Philip was born to engage it; charismatic, charming, and quick to smile, he was one of those people who lifted the spirits of a room just by walking into it. It says a lot about him that his favorite books were the Bible and his joke book. He was silly enough to walk around Rome with half his beard shaven off, and solemn enough to bring a congregation to tears. He was the scholar who taught the simple, the joker who consoled the sorrowful, the friend who welcomed every stranger, and the priest who reached out to every sinner. We call him the patron saint of laughter not simply because he excelled at making people laugh, but because he did it for the reasons St. Paul spoke of: That they might calm their anxiety, approach the Lord in prayer, and come to know the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:4-7). This was grace at work in him for their sanctification and his own.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that grace perfects nature, and like all the saints, this is what St. Philip Neri shows us. The gifts God gave him – a jovial personality, the ability to relate to people, a brilliant mind, everything that made him who he was – were not meant to be replaced or suppressed; on the contrary, they were given to be made more excellent by the working of grace. What’s more, God graces each saint with their own unique gifts. Sanctity is not a matter of becoming more like someone else; it is becoming who we are. God doesn’t want another Philip Neri, He wants us, and he wants us to use the gifts He has given us, that through us people might know the peace of God and draw closer to Him and each other.
This is the unity Christ had in mind when he said, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me (John 17:23). No wonder St. Paul said to rejoice! If knowing the infinite love of God is what it means to be saint, then I’m with St. Philip Neri; I’d rather laugh with the saints than cry with the sinners. The saints are much more fun.
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