For the past few decades, the popes have been trying to inspire Catholics to take up their role in the re-evangelization of areas where the Church was once strong but where now the vast majority of baptized Catholics do not practice the faith with fervor or even at all. In most of the Catholic countries of Europe, fewer than ten percent of Catholics practice the faith. We have seen in recent U.S. surveys that one out of ten Americans is now an ex-Catholic, that less than twenty-five percent of Catholics come to Mass each week, and that even of Mass attendees, about half disagree with the teaching of the Church on fundamental moral teachings like abortion and marriage. Many, moreover, remain justifiably shaken at the epidemic failure of holy leadership that was exposed in the clergy sexual abuse scandals.
For all these reasons, the re-evangelization that the popes are insistently calling us to take up will obviously not be easy. But in this missionary task, we are not alone. God is with us. Working together with him, we have much more than a fighting chance.
In previous crises that have faced the Church, the normal way God has helped to bring the Church back to her identity and mission has been through raising up saints who become the living icons of how to live the Gospel anew. On Tuesday, we celebrated the feast of one of those saints, St. Philip Neri, who more than any other helped 16th-century Rome return to the practice of the faith.
When Philip Neri arrived in Rome in 1533 as an 18 year-old layman, the eternal city was in multiple levels of devastation. Most of the people were still in trauma from Charles V’s brutal ransacking of the city in 1527. The Renaissance had led to the rediscovery of much of pagan literature and with it, the intellectual and cultured classes had readopted pagan rituals and practices. The Church was in almost total disarray. Several of the Renaissance popes lived more in disgrace than grace. Cardinals were appointed not because of their holiness or sacred leadership but because of their bank accounts and bloodlines. Many pastors, desiring to live leisurely, subcontracted the care of souls to those who were unfit. The challenges that confronted Philip would make our situation seem almost idyllic by comparison. Yet, by his death in 1595, this vast metropolis had, to a large degree, returned with fervor to the practice of the faith.
What did St. Philip do to help turn it around? What can we learn from him to help us in our task of re-evangelization today? Briefly I’d like to mention seven elements.
First is personal holiness. When Philip arrived, he got a job as a tutor of two brothers that provided a room as well as a daily fare of bread, water and few olives. Philip spent most of his time in prayer and study, trying to conform his heart to the Lord’s. He begged God to give him what he needed. God didn’t let him down. Once on the vigil of Pentecost, as he was in the catacombs imploring the Holy Spirit to give him the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), he saw the third person of the Trinity take on the appearance of a ball of fire that entered his mouth, descended to his heart and caused an explosion of heat and love that an autopsy later demonstrated had broken outward two of his ribs and almost doubled the size of his heart. For the rest of his life, he lived according to the Spirit and was a living example of each of its fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The second element was cheerful friendship. Philip would go up to people on the streets, joke and laugh with them, win them over by his jovial goodness and ask, “Brothers, when are we going to start to do good?” Rather than preaching the Gospel at them, he was incarnating the joy of the good news for them, which inspired them to seek to do good alongside him.
That good was the third element. He invited his new friends to help him in caring for the sick. They would volunteer each day as orderlies in hospitals, cleaning and changing patients, feeding them, and often preparing them for death. Medical care and sanitation are still problems in Italian public hospitals today; they were little more than germ factories in the 16th century. Philip and his friends, however, brought the Good Samaritan’s love to those whom few in society were willing to care for.
The fourth element was what we’d call today adult education of the laity. Philip would get all his friends together for brief talks in his apartment on the lives of the saints and martyrs, on Church history, and on various applications of the faith to daily life. He would give many of the talks himself — which created a stir since he was at the time a layman — and invite others whom he thought capable to do the same. Later, these would develop into what he called the little Oratory, where everyone from the poor and illiterate to cardinals and Rome’s rich, famous and cultured would sit side-by-side.
Fifth, he organized specifically Christian activities. You can’t replace something with nothing, and Philip knew that to draw the young away from pagan practices like the Saturnalia, there needed to be fun and attractive adventures of faith. So he started pilgrimages to the seven ancient basilicas in Rome, 40 hour devotions, musical groups and more. Many who at first might not have been drawn to the activities were attracted to the contagious enthusiasm of their organizer. Over time, however, these good activities formed them in virtue as much as the pagan activities had been forming them in vice. These happy peregrinations were also the occasion for many others to come to know about Philip and to join them.
Sixth, after his spiritual director persuaded him that he could do even more good as a priest than as a layman, he was ordained at the age of 36, and from that point forward began to become one of the greatest confessors and spiritual directors in the history of the Church. There’s no greater means given by God to help people turn their lives around than the sacrament of penance. From dawn until his noon Mass, and for several hours in the afternoon, Philip would hear confessions. In order to hear more confessions, he needed to cut down on the advice given to each penitent, so he would ask them to come to the little Oratory where they could learn at once many of the things he would need to repeat. Many of his medicinal penances remain legendary, like having a vain young man shave off half of his beard to grow in humility and an elderly try to collect feathers dropped from a tower to learn the irreparable damage done by gossip. Some great sinners, as well as popes and saints, became his regular penitents and directees.
Seventh, St. Philip inspired a missionary spirit among the laity. He formed lay people so that they could go out and evangelize others and transform culture and society. They would read together St. Francis Xavier’s letters from India and resolve to make Rome their Indies and win it back for Christ. Philip knew that, without the laity, there was little chance priests and religious alone could turn around Rome. This novel approach of lay involvement would bring him to the attention and, for a time, discipline of the Inquisition. He was centuries ahead of his time.
This great “apostle of Rome” is another example of what God can do when even one of his sons or daughters gives him permission. As we prepare for the feast of Pentecost, let’s imitate St. Philip in the first of the seven steps and ask God to take away any resistance we have to the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s gifts as he seeks to make us the Francis Xaviers and Philip Neris of southeastern Mass.
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