Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura pays tribute to St Philip Neri
This is the full text of the homily preached by Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, at the London Oratory on the Solemnity of St Philip Neri on May 26:
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and for ever. Amen.
The Parable of the Vine and the Branches expresses the intimacy of our communion with Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Indeed once we have received the sevenfold gift of divine truth and love into our hearts, we belong totally to Christ. He lives in us, and we live in Him. Once we have received the gift of Christ’s life within us, Christ must become our all. Christ becomes more intimate to us than we are to ourselves; in Him alone do we come to know our true self and to live in accord with that truth.
Christ tells us in unequivocal terms: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Christ goes on to promise, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” His promise does not signify some sure formula to attain the fulfillment of capricious desires but rather the assurance of the grace to live coherently and fully in Christ in all things and so to accomplish what is truly the deepest desire of every human heart, that is, the love of God with all our heart and the love of our neighbor without boundary.
Regarding our daily life in Christ, Saint Paul teaches us: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Saint Paul urges us to center our thoughts on every excellence, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,” and to act according to the True, the Beautiful and the Good. Referring to the miracle of God’s grace at work within his own soul, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, he confidently assured the first Christians at Philippi: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.”
When our life takes its direction and energy from communion with Christ in prayer, we fulfill the plan of God the Father, the vinedresser of Christ the Vine and of us, His branches. Christ tells us: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” God the Father in His immeasurable and ceaseless love of us, sent His only-begotten Son to unite our human nature to His divine nature through His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. God the Son, consubstantial with the Father, became man, so that we, one with Him, uniting our hearts to His Sacred Heart, giving our hearts totally into His glorious pierced Heart, may live in God, may draw our life from God the Son Incarnate, may find in Him, in His Heart, the purification of our sins and the gift of divine love, pure and selfless, without measure and without end.
In the Heart of Jesus, through prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit dwelling within our hearts, we understand, as the sacred author of the Book of Wisdom understood, that the wisdom of God is the mother of all good. The sacred author declares: “All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother.”
In the Heart of Jesus, through prayer prompted by the Holy Spirit dwelling within our hearts, we find the strength to share without boundary the great treasure which God so richly imparts to us, undeserving as we are, in His only-begotten Son Whom He has sent to us as our Brother. In the Christian life, in our life lived in Christ, we see the fulfillment of the words of the sacred author: “I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for men; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction.” The sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit is our greatest treasure which is to be safeguarded and fostered through prayer and the Sacraments, and, at the same time, to be given without measure to every brother and sister, to our world. The life of the Holy Spirit within us is inherently dynamic for the sake of our salvation and the salvation of the world.
In the life of Saint Philip Neri, Priest and Founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, whose solemnity we gratefully and joyfully celebrate today, we witness the Goodness, Truth and Beauty which is our life in Christ. Already at the age of 18, when, Saint Philip, a handsome, intelligent and most charming young man, was sent to live and work with his wealthy uncle Romolo in San Germano in Campania, with the prospect of inheriting the great wealth of his uncle, Saint Philip understood that he could not remain with his uncle. Already at a young age, he had given himself so completely to Christ that he, like Christ, wanted to make himself poor for the sake of the eternal salvation of his neighbour. He, therefore, left his uncle and journeyed to Rome, in order that he might grow in his knowledge and love of Christ. His disciple and biographer Antonio Gallonio tells us: “It was in the year of Christ’s birth 1533 that he betook himself to Rome, where he could be free, and with an unburdened mind devote all his thoughts and concerns to God alone.”
In Rome, he found a society and culture marked by the inevitable decay of a life lived without communion with God in Christ. From the very beginning of his life in Rome, he dedicated himself to prayer and mortification, to the life of the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Penance, to the study of philosophy and theology, and to the care of those in most need, in order that he might come to know ever more perfectly Christ and, therefore, to love Him more ardently. Once he had completed his studies, he dedicated himself totally to what he understood to be their end. He set out to give to others, steadfastly and tirelessly, the great treasure he had found in Jesus Christ.
Saint Philip understood that his brothers in the world, although they were giving themselves over to the confusion and error of a life of sin, desired, in the depth of their hearts, to know the truth which Christ alone teaches to us and to receive the love with which Christ alone loves us. Hence, his customary greeting, “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?,” invited all whom he met to discover the source of the spiritual truth, beauty and goodness which shone forth upon his face, which were manifest in his words and deeds. He announced the word of Christ to others, led them to the Sacraments, above all the Holy Eucharist and Penance, and to the devotional life, especially through the Seven Church Walk; and introduced them to the life of charity, especially to caring for the sick in the hospitals of Rome.
For his own part, Saint Philip never failed to give himself to long periods of prayer, especially in the evening at the holy places of the catacombs, in order to remain coherent and strong in his love of Christ, and to resist the many temptations which Satan never ceased to place along his way. Near the burial place of his ancestors in the faith, with whom he shared communion in the Church, he prayed to live and to die for Christ alone.
Saint Philip’s unity of heart with the Heart of Jesus led to a physical expansion of his heart, so that he might receive even more fully the love poured forth from the Heart of Jesus. On this day, the Eve of Pentecost, in 1544, while he was praying in the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian on the Appian Way, “he suddenly felt himself filled with such a violent inrush of the divine Spirit,” causing his heart to beat ever more strongly and filling him with a love which could not be contained. Our Lord who expanded his heart with a particular outpouring of the Holy Spirit also enlarged the space around his heart, so that it might beat with ever greater love. Antonio Gallonio explains: “From that moment on, for more than fifty years, his heart used to palpitate violently, to a greater or lesser extent, as soon as he was mentally alert to God, so that not only his whole body shook, but even the bench or whatever he was sitting on shook during his prayer as in an earthquake.”
Belonging totally to Christ, Saint Philip’s life was marked above all by humility, by the recognition that he depended completely upon Christ for every grace needed and that Christ would never fail him. One understands what often is superficially interpreted as eccentricity in Saint Philip as his effort to make clear that it is Christ alone who matters and that any good which he was doing was done through, with and in Christ.
Likewise, too, the particular structure of the Congregation of the Oratory reflects Saint Philip’s desire that those who would join him in his life of prayer, mortification, and apostolic charity, should manifest always in a clear way the structure of life of the first oratory at San Girolamo della Carità, that is, that they should remain always humbly and confidently centered in Christ. In a most helpful study on the juridical nature of the Congregation of the Oratory, the author describes the life of the members of the Oratory from the beginning with these words:
“In addition to prayer, especially mental prayer, both preaching and administration of the Sacraments formed the basic life of Oratorians, with a special emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance. As well as the afternoon services, which became evening popular devotions at a later period, certain liturgical functions were prescribed in the Constitutions and these were always carried out with great splendour and correctness.”
It is clear, in fidelity to the particular grace given to Saint Philip, that for his disciple every energy is to poured out in living in Christ and in bringing Christ to others. Saint Philip wanted no attention to be given to himself, lest attention be taken away from Christ Who alone is man’s salvation. His spiritual sons, however, understandably and justifiably desire to be reminded of Saint Philip frequently in their everyday life, for example, by the striking beauty of the architecture of this church built for the Oratory, in order that they might never fail to imitate Saint Philip as fully as possible in their daily lives.
Celebrating the Solemn Mass in this Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we recall how the union of the heart of Saint Philip with the Sacred Heart of Jesus found its example and its strength in the totally pure heart of Mary. Here it suffices to recall the prayer of Saint Philip: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me,” and his admonition: “My little children, be devout to Mary: I know what I am saying! Be devout to Mary!”
There are so many aspects of the life of Saint Philip Neri which express and illustrate the truth that we are indeed branches grafted into the living Vine Who is Christ, aspects which followers of Saint Philip and all the faithful want to imitate, especially in the trying time in which we live, a time when so many, like the Romans of Saint Philip’s time, have forgotten God and are ignorant of or hostile toward His law written upon their hearts. Today, recalling the heroic holiness of life of Saint Philip Neri, we cannot fail to note how similar his time was to ours and to understand how our time requires a heroic living in Christ, similar to his. May the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri here continue to be an inspiration for such living, and an efficacious instrument by which Christ purifies and strengthens us to live totally for Him.
Finally, it is important to underline one aspect, that is, Saint Philip’s attention to the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy, of the art and architecture of churches and chapels, and of everything employed for the worship of God. Saint Philip understood that our lives are first and foremost centered upon Christ, firmly and fully grafted into His Life, by means of Sacred Worship. For Saint Philip, everything about Sacred Worship must point to the beauty of Christ alone and of the eternal salvation which He has won for us. It is not by accident that the first two chapters of the original Constitutions of the Congregation of the Oratory treat, first, prayer and the oratory as primarily the place of prayer, and, second, the church and Divine Worship. Before the daunting challenges of Christian living in our time, let us never cease to centre our lives in the Sacred liturgy handed down to us in an unbroken tradition from the Apostles. Let us always discover anew the beauty of our life in Christ in the immeasurable beauty of His life with us through the Sacred Liturgy.
As we will now be sacramentally united to the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, let us, in imitation of Mary Immaculate, the Mother of God, and Saint Philip Neri, her beloved son in her Divine Son, lift up our hearts to the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus. Let us pray that we may be ever more securely grafted into Christ the Vine, that our hearts may be ever more totally one with His Heart, filled with humble gratitude for the gift of divine love coming to us from above, with humble repentance for our sins and with new energy to bring the love of Christ from His Heart into the whole world. Privileged to celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Philip Neri in his oratory here, let us pray that the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in London will continue to be, as it has faithfully been, a furnace of divine love, after the Heart of Jesus and the heart of Saint Philip, that it may prosper in teaching sound doctrine, in the ministration of the Sacraments, especially the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Penance, and in the care of the sick and of all who are in need of a sign of God’s mercy in their lives.
As we prepare to be one with Christ in His Eucharistic Sacrifice, let us pray, through the intercession of Saint Philip Neri, with the prayer, inspired by Psalm 79, which is attributed to Cardinal Cesare Baronio at the death of Saint Philip, the English translation of which we owe to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:
“But now, look down from heaven, holy Father, for I will address you directly, from the loftiness of that mountain to the lowliness of this valley; from that harbor of quietness and tranquillity to this calamitous sea. And now that the darkness of this world hinders no more those benignant eyes of thine from looking clearly into all things, look down and visit, O most diligent keeper, this vineyard which thy right hand planted with so much labour, anxiety and peril. To thee then we fly; from thee we seek for aid; to thee we give our whole selves unreservedly. Thee we adopt for our patron and defender; undertake the cause of our salvation, protect thy clients. To thee we appeal as our leader; rule thine army fighting against the assaults of the devil. To thee, kindest of pilots, we give up the rudder of our lives; steer this little ship of thine, and, placed as thou are on high, keep us off the rocks of evil desires, that with thee for our pilot and our guide, we may safely come to the port of eternal bliss.”
Heart of Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, have mercy on us.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
Saint Philip Neri, pray for us.