St. Philip Neri: Humor and Holiness

Matt is the latest writer to join our stable at True Restoration.  We are happy to present his latest piece on this Feast of St. Philip Neri.  -Ed.

In 1622, a certain Father Pietro Giacomo Bacci of the Roman Oratory compiled a Life of Saint Philip Neri in two volumes which together total almost 900 pages. The 1847 English translation of that work, the fruit of project headed by Father Frederick Faber— who himself was an Oratorian and bears a name of no little repute among Traditional Catholics—can be read at no charge via the Google Books portal. We have slightly less space available to us today with which to explore the life of this singular saint, whose name, along with that of his contemporary and this site's patron, St. Ignatius Loyola, is almost synonymous with the Catholic Reformation that took place in response to Martin Luther’s revolt. Had we wished to wax loquacious the requisite material would not have been denied us, for St. Philip’s life was very long, very public, and exceptionally well-connected. Of the 80 years that God gave him (1515-1595), above 60 of them were spent in the city of Rome itself. He could number among his contemporaries some fifteen Popes and their Cardinals and courtiers, with many of whom he was intimate and remarkably free with his opinion. His good friend and student was the noted Church historian Baronius. His endless throng of penitents included the sister of St. Charles Borromeo, the sister of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, and (reportedly) the renowned composer Palestrina. Unlike some of the obscurer saints of the first Christian centuries, St. Philip’s life provides ample fodder for the historian.

And yet our task is by no means an easy one, for it involves a good deal of archaeology, interpretation, and insight. The subtitle of today’s essay is “Humor and Holiness,” which locution contains within itself the seedbed of several pertinent questions. What is humor and what is holiness? Let us not just pass over these terms as if they were self-evident and readily available quantities we can factor into our assessment. What are the possible coordination-complexes between the two, and which of these did St. Philip Neri possess? Furthermore, what does it mean for a particular saint to stand out conspicuously in this regard, so as to be dubbed and remembered in the annals of sainthood as “the” humorous saint? How was this appellation chosen? How was it applied? Is it accurate? All this certainly can be asked without fear of impiety and indeed must be asked if we wish to meditate deeply upon the saint’s life, to figure out what qualities of his we can emulate and adapt to our own unique circumstances. The failure to properly ground the underlying concepts will result in us obtaining only a silly and unreliable caricature of the man when what we wanted was a model of sanctity; and this has happened before. The Novus Ordo sect is itself one gigantic reinterpretation, repurposing, and outstripping of Roman Catholicism. Many a saint, too, has been subject to a hagiographical makeover in the attempt to bring him up to date, to render him more acceptable to the spirit of the times, the new spirit of Vatican II with its openness, ecumenism, and earth-centered focus. In our day and age the possibility of misinterpretation remains a danger with any saint, but perhaps—for a generation which seems to value entertainment above all else—with none more so than him who was styled the “humorous” one.
Today I do not wish to dwell excessively on the mere biographical details of St. Philip’s life, for these will aid us but little in our purpose and are in any case easily obtained from a hundred other sources after a quick internet search; however, since they cannot be entirely avoided in our discussion, we may let them serve as a valuable introduction to the problem we face. This first example will serve to demonstrate how difficult it can be to play the historian even with a life as eminently documented as Neri’s. In the first three of the several highly respectable sources I consulted in the preparation of this essay, I found Philip Neri listed variously as the eldest, the youngest, and the middle child of his parents. The fact of the matter, which can only be inferred not referenced, seems to be that Philip was the eldest of the four (or five) children born to Francesco Neri and Lucrezia da Mosciano who survived their infancy; he was the youngest of their two sons when reckoning modulo the survivors (his older brother Antonio had died young, and his two younger siblings were sisters, Caterina and Elizabetta); but he was in fact the second (or middle) in order of all those born. Thus, with the help of a few acrobatics, and making allowances for any confusion brought by mistranslations, unintentional elisions, and the effects of unfamiliar turns of phrase, the various accounts can be made to harmonize. Similarly, Philip’s parents are described in some places as noble, in other places as poor, and in yet other places as both (for the adjectives certainly do not exclude one another);—but either one of them taken individually makes an impression that differs greatly from the other, and differs also from the two of them taken in conjunction. Why carp upon these relatively unimportant matters? Because if the biographers can be in disagreement with each other concerning such apparently basic biographical data, it is only fair to wonder how well-traveled are the legends concerning the saint’s humorous demeanor. Humor, which depends so sensitively on the specifics of time and place, on the nuances of timing, language, and personality, can be read into or rubbed out of a story with the alteration of the tiniest details. Any tale tends to become more and more like a Platonic version of itself with repeated telling; in time the rough-hewn incidents of our lives are molded into the perfect war stories, the perfect love stories, and sometimes the perfect jokes. The air of humorousness has stuck to the story of St. Philip Neri and it is important for us to figure out why.
Not unlike the discrepancies surrounding his birth order, the stories told about St. Philip’s humor differ somewhat across the spectrum of sources. There are, however, a few which recur with greater frequency and are told with greater poignancy. Let us recount some of them now. It is said that he would sometimes go about town with half his beard shaved off. On one occasion he was observed to have delivered a Fr. Bernardi, a member of his Congregation of the Oratory, from a deep depression by inviting him to have a run with him. Another tale is made to illustrate St. Philip’s preference for mental and spiritual mortification over the bodily: A man once asked him if he might be allowed to wear a hair shirt as part of his penance. Philip responded that he might, provided he wore it outside his clothes. The derision heaped upon the man for this bit of sartorial silliness apparently did wonders for his humility. At a later date, after Philip’s great reputation for sanctity had spread very wide, a pair of Polish noblemen came to visit the holy man and found him listening to a priest read to him from a joke book. Finally, an especially memorable story is told about the time Philip chanced to meet a holy and devout monk in the street. This monk had earned for himself a reputation for sanctity as well as for being a bit of a tippler. He offered Philip a drink from the wine bottle he habitually carried about with him, which Philip accepted to the great amusement of the crowd. To return the gesture, Philip (who by that time had been ordained a priest) pressed his four-cornered hat onto the monk’s head and motioned him off, which drew even more laughter. The monk responded by telling the crowd that anyone who wanted Philip’s hat was welcome to it. Philip took it back and proceeded on his way.
The relative stability of these stories testifies to their probable derivation from a common source, which we can in all likelihood take to be the very materials drawn up in preparation for Philip’s Process of Canonization. I have searched for those documents and have been unable to find them; they are possibly not yet digitized and may be unavailable in languages other than their original Latin or Italian, in which case I would not be able to read them anyway. A list of probabilities, I know; but if these stories were not derived from an authoritative source then they can be nothing else than some individual historian’s collection of vague rumors. And where would a later historian first think to look for reliable information about the saint’s life but in his Process of Canonization (Philip was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV), the most authoritative source there is? Those accounts, in turn, almost certainly were drawn from the documents and the living tradition maintained by the Roman Oratory—the continuance on Earth of Philip’s unique spirituality and a community of men most devoted to the faithful preservation of his memory. So we may take it as proven within the limits of historical knowledge that a certain irony, gaiety, and charming demeanor were part of the impressionleft by St. Philip Neri upon his followers.
But it was neither the largest nor the most important part of that impression. We have already made mention of Fr. Bacci’s massive compilation of St. Philip’s Life. The first volume of his work comprises 452 pages. Within those  452 pages is contained one chapter entitled “Philip delivers many from melancholy and scruples,” which accounts for seven of them. No other chapter title touches upon jocularity in even so tangential a manner as this one does (and this chapter itself mostly consists of Philip delivering souls from demonic possession or the scruple thereof). Instead we are given account after account of Philip’s holiness, his fervors, his charity, his prevision, the miracles wrought through him, his almsgiving—the typical manifestations of an eminent sanctity. What is most notable in this long work, and what stands in stark contrast to the saint’s latter-day reputation, is the uncompromising severity with which Philip combated sin in himself and the world. He subjected his penitents to the most humiliating of procedures. Some were made to go about town in shredded clothes, others to enter churches and beg of the worshippers during the sermons, eating nothing that day but what they could obtain in this unusual manner. Still others had to submit to public confessions of their sins, or walk behind Philip carrying his pet dog in their arms. Philip once commanded a woman to die rather than yield to temptations of the devil in her last agony. None of this bears much resemblance to what a modern Catholic would desire of “the humorous saint.” It is true that a strain of levity makes its appearance here and there. One thinks of those delightful meetings of the Oratory and the informal gatherings which preceded its institution, where men met to read the Scriptures, discuss holy themes, and listen to sacred music. But we must remember that Philip strictly forbade any discussion of dialectics in his presence. Everything was discussed with a view towards its immediate practical application. If one of his Oratorians was seen to be taking too much pleasure in his disquisition, it was not uncommon for Philip to interrupt the man in mid-word and appoint some less talented speaker to finish the lecture. It was Philip’s charity, his rugged and simple love of God and neighbor, which brought such joy to those around him.
We may take Fr. Bacci’s work as the standard exposition of Nerian spirituality. Given the early date of its publication, the fact that its author was himself a member of the Roman Oratory, the evident care in matters of composition that permeates it throughout, and the enthusiastic reception it enjoyed among others who knew the man personally, it seems to be as authentic a portrait of St. Philip Neri as anything this side of Heaven. Therefore, the fact that it makes rather little of the saint’s vaunted humorousness prompts us to look elsewhere for the origination of that theme. The answer to this riddle seems to be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In 1786 Goethe embarked upon a two-year tour of the Italian peninsula and Sicily. He kept a journal of these travels which he later edited into a book of essays published under the title Italian Journey. Although not published until 1816, the 30 years’ hiatus had not dulled Goethe’s memory and had permitted him to add his mature reflections and synthetic judgments to the work. Buried in that book is a biographical vignette called Philip Neri, The Humorous Saint—the first instance I’m aware of in which that moniker was affixed to him. Goethe, be it recalled, detested the Roman Catholic Church. The picture he draws of Philip Neri is insightful, appreciative, and even laudatory; but it is anything but Catholic. Goethe, with his panentheistic view of the universe, simply takes it for granted that the Church is a repressive institution and that St. Philip’s creative spirituality was a reaction against it. The reader may note that this is precisely the same hermeneutic by which Protestants are able to regard Savonarola, Neri’s fellow Florentine and one whom our saint held in beloved memory, as a forerunner of their own revolution. The Neri who takes shape under Goethe’s pen is not so much a saint as he is sectary, a man of deep passions and immense but confused spiritual endowments. He lives within the Roman system in a state of permanent but carefully channeled protest. His early fervors, including that rapturous encounter with God in the catacombs which broke his ribs and enlarged his heart, were the struggles of a tortured genius against “the system.” The frequent and bizarre penances he distributed to himself and others were his “jokes,” his ironical explosions and secret mockery directed against a stultifying world; this was his compromise and his attempt to remain authentic. Thus was born “the humorous saint.” It goes without saying that Goethe’s perception of Neri was romantic through and through.
But Goethe’s perception may not have been an entirely entoptic phenomenon. He was said to have made a careful study of the source materials before composing his essay on Neri. No doubt he would have visited the Oratory and conversed with the fellows he found there. He was in any case, despite his philosophical flaws, one of the most brilliant men of all times and a sensitive physiognomist who often discerned the inner forms of things. His visit to Rome could not have taken place any later than 1787, but could it be that by that time a touch of romanticism had already begun to infect St. Philip’s Congregation there in its heart? We have not the space available to explore that question now, but as circumstantial evidence let us return to Fr. Faber, whose translation of Fr. Bacci’s work we have relied upon throughout this essay; and who, along with John Henry Cardinal Newman, was instrumental in bringing the Oratory to England. Now Fr. Faber says of Philip Neri that “he had a keen appreciation of the growing subjectivity of the modern mind,” that “he was emphatically a modern gentleman.” Faber intended these words to express nothing but the most innocent praise of Neri, but something about this still seems amiss to me.
Who were these men, Father Faber and Cardinal Newman? Hallowed names to be sure, and rightly respected within Traditional Catholic circles;—but what sort of men? They were both the eccentric sons of well-to-do English families, the second man of shy and reserved temperament, the first man merely odd; well educated men, bookish types, writers of poetry, scholars, solitaries, clergymen. They both converted to Catholicism well into adulthood after having first been Calvinists, then Anglicans. They had also their differences, to be sure: Father Faber was a Bizet who was intoxicated with the lustiness of the Latin south, while Cardinal Newman was an Oxford owl holding silent commune with his soul through the long northern nights. But both these men were fundamentally thinkers, brooders, and connoisseurs of the spirit. How remote they were from St. Philip Neri, whose whole life was bound up with the practical and the immediate! The thought of either one of them being practical is too much to countenance without a chuckle. Just imagine Cardinal Newman playing drinking games with a boisterous monk in the street. And yet these men had each visited Rome in the 1830s and 40s, and they each became Oratorians in the end. Is it possible that their experiences where somewhat skewed by time and circumstance? Is it possible that they mistook their bookish admiration for St. Philip’s simplicity, for the same simplicity within themselves?—that they loved the Scriptural readings in the Oratory not as a propaedeutic for immediate action as St. Philip had, but for its own sake, for the intimacy of the setting, for the warm oriental glow of the words and the communal dip in Christ’s radiance? Is it possible that something of this same attitude had  by that time taken hold in Rome as well? Indeed, how could these men have experienced the Oratory in any sense other than the romantic?
Whatever the case may be, in the present day St. Philip’s identity as “the humorous saint” is firmly fixed in the Catholic mind, to the exclusion of every other quality. We need only examine St. Philip’s biographical entry on a Novus Ordo website to see how far the situation has deteriorated:

In his footsteps:
We often worry more about what others think that about what God thinks. Our fear of people laughing at us often stops us from trying new things or serving God. Do something today that you are afraid might make you look a little ridiculous. Then reflect on how it makes you feel. Pray about your experience with God.
Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humor to our perspective -- remembering always that humor is a gift from God. Amen.

Gone is the saint who would have, with a perfectly clear conscience, commanded a woman to die rather than risk temptation. In his place we have nothing more than an affable buffoon, a man whose character is familiar to all of us today in the person of Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who never seems to be photographed except in a state of mid-guffaw as he yuks it up with Joe Biden and Barack Obama—the modern rendition of “humor and holiness.”
Let it not be so with us. When you remember St. Philip Neri, remember his ever-palpitating heart, always aflame with the love of Christ. Remember his determination to reconvert Rome at any cost, beginning at the humblest of beginnings. The Apostle of Rome entered the city without a plan, without provisions, and for 60 years he ruthlessly fought the enemy for every human soul he met. Let your humor be the golden laughter of conquering knights who think no more of sorrows, but only of serving their king. This alone is humor and holiness: To laugh at sin while crushing it, and to burst our hearts with love.

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