“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.” These words uttered by Saint Philip Neri, one of the most amusing saints in the Catholic Church, acquire a special significance today when we tend to be overly serious when we think of religion. Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy coming from the realization that God continues to love us despite the idiots (and more…) we are.
St Philip Neri, or “Pippo buono”, “good little Phil” as he was known when he was a kid, was an enemy of seriousness and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him (he was famous as a confessor) he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats), or even their own dog! When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. To combat pride or hero worship, he thought of means to make oneself look ridiculous!
There are many ways to convert someone. One man used to come to the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri just to make fun of him. Many wanted to simply throw him out. Philip would not even hear of it. He kept insisting on patience. He never spoke badly of him even though he was a bothering everyone. His doggedness won this fellow over and he became a Dominican priest. Yet, on another occasion, when he was asked to go and speak with a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip was not gentle at all. He just grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession quickly! I suppose, he was afraid of another basic tackle!
Noticing that this disciple was too haughty, Saint Philip Neri ordered him to go and sing ‘Miserere’ – a penitential psalm normally sung in funerals or celebrations of reconciliation – during a wedding reception! One priest who was being lauded for a magnificent sermon that he had just made, received the order to repeat the same identical sermon for ten times in the same Church. They were so fed up that no one praised him any more after that! When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission, of course. As long, the saint added, as he wore the hair shirt on the outside of his clothes! Many made fun of him. That was real penance. Philip himself once went preaching with only half of his beard shaved off! The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to seem.
Respectability and virtue do have their rewards in self-respect and in admiration from others, and it is easy to find ourselves aiming for the result rather than for the cause. The antidote to this camouflaged pride? From time to time, let us make fools of ourselves and thus see ourselves as the all-wise God sees us. Holiness can be fun!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.