Feast of St Philip Neri

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Given at the Feast of St Philip Neri at the London Oratory School on 27 May 2016.

Joy is infectious. Jesus desires to share his joy with his friends, which includes ourselves. No longer are we called servants but rather friends. He teaches us to follow the commandments which can be summarised in the commandment to love God and our neighbour. Perfect love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and model the self-giving love of Christ on the cross. On Monday, the Cathedral welcomed the relics of St Thomas Becket which reminded us of how he argued for the freedom of the Church against King Henry II and was murdered for holding this position. True love leads to true joy because it is in losing ourselves that we find ourselves and live most authentically. Such love is practical: standing up for justice, caring for family members who are sick, reaching out to the needy, serving the vulnerable and always being concerned for the good of others. Jesus desires that his joy may abide and flourish in our hearts. Such joy is attractive and is revealed through our faces which then makes others ask about its source and origin. A person filled with this joy is never a querulous and disillusioned pessimist, or a ‘sourpuss’, to use the Pope’s language.

Joy is a word which is always on the lips and the smile of Pope Francis. He has laughed, joked, posed for selfies and always seems to have a radiant smile for people whom he meets. This is my abiding memory after meeting him soon after his installation as Pope, he appeared with a beaming and kindly smile on his face. Of course he is also able to speak with deep emotion about the tragic challenges which face people who suffer poverty and injustice. He makes us feel uncomfortable because of the way in which he has spoken about our complacency towards the problems of refugees and those who die daily in the Mediterranean. He has written of The Joy of the Gospel and called Catholics to look outwards and reach out to share the message of Christ with others. He has summoned us to be missionary disciples on fire with the promise of Christ. Recently he has summed up the work of the two synods on the family by writing The Joy of Love which presents a rich and scriptural vision of the beauty and joy of the sacrament of marriage and the richness and necessity of family life. He desires to share his joy with others.

Pope Francis embodies the opening words from the first reading written by St Paul, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice’. This joy comes from recognising that everything is a gift. Each one of us is given gifts by the Lord to be used for the good of others in service to the kingdom of God. The teaching of Christ is founded on the dignity and uniqueness of each and every person created by God and invites the response of justice, truth, and forgiveness. We rejoice in the gifts and works of God. All else is vanity.

Five hundred years before Pope Francis the joy of which St Paul speaks was manifested in the life of St Philip Neri. He showed it in the company of his friends, in his service of the poor and the care of the sick, and by his delight in study and learning. We can imagine him saying to his friends, ‘Rejoice in the Lord, again I say rejoice.’ As he walked the roads of Rome and wandered around the market of the Campo dei Fiori, he desired to win hearts back to Jesus Christ. When he saw the ruins around him and the decadence of life, he knew that Rome must be built again on the firm foundation of faith. True joy in the Lord, and not in the world, would come from the building blocks of prayer, frequent confession and Holy Communion that leads to a life filled with faith, hope and charity; for St Philip, in visiting the sick and tending to the poor, in mixing in the rich and the privileged, he always spoke of mercy and God’s love.

St Philip built on firm foundations, the theology and learning of St Dominic, the model of prayer of St Benedict and the apostolic zeal of St Ignatius whom he knew personally in Rome. The way in which he lived the joyful presentation of the gospel came from a heart on fire with love for Jesus Christ and which abided in him. He would speak of the things of God and his face would be illuminated with the joy of the Lord. As Cardinal Newman writes, ‘Then came St Philip, but in his own quiet way, like "the whispering of a gentle air," his speech trickling like dew, as a shower upon the herb, and as drops upon the grass.’ With humour and wit he led people back to the Lord.

Moving easily between different strata of society, he was able to say to those he met, ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.’ This will give you joy.

On this feast, thank God for the gifts that he has given to you; pray that you may use them wisely in the service of his kingdom, and be faithful to the wisdom you have learnt at the London Oratory School. Unless the house is built on solid rock, it will fall. Poor foundations lead to buildings that collapse when the wind blows and the rain falls. Solid foundations give endurance and stability. Become men and women of joy by following Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life and imitate the example of St Philip. In this way, you will yield a rich harvest.