The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today is, famously, the feast of Spain’s patron saint, whose shrine in the north-western corner of Spain still draws thousands on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, especially in the summer months. On the way there, and indeed, throughout the Spanish peninsula, many will encounter an image of a bearded man with a broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat decorated with a scallop shell. This tells us that it is St James. And the apostle is depicted charging in on horseback, brandishing a sword. And under the horse’s feet lie several men wearing turbans. This is the image of Santiago Matamoros, the ‘Slayer of the Moors’.
According to tradition, St James appeared at a decisive battle against the Moors in May 844 to help the Christian armies of the Spanish kingdoms to defeat and turn back the Muslim forces which had, until then, steadily conquered the south of Spain and were threatening to conquer the rest of Europe. The south of Spain, forming the kingdom of Andalusia, remained under Muslim rule as an Islamic civilization for 700 years. However, the appearence of St James in 844 is seen as the start of a ‘re-conquest’ of southern Spain and its return to the Christian Faith.
For many today, this image of Santiago Matamoros is somewhat controversial. Its violent stance has been said to be contrary to the Gospel. And yet, it remains meaningful for many people. In Santiago de Compostela in 2004, the cathedral authorities wanted to remove their statue of the Matamoros but there was such a public outcry that they agreed to let it remain. So, we need to wonder, just what does the image of Santiago Matamoros represent? Why did the Spanish Christians appeal to St James for help? Why did they want a heavenly defender to help defeat the Moors?
If we accept the popular mythology of Andalusia as an enlightened civilization led by philosophically sophisticated Muslim rulers then, indeed, this doesn’t make sense. Many people want to believe that Andalusia was a place of toleration and harmony in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peace until the intolerant Christian rulers captured Grenada in 1492 and so ended benign Muslim rule on the Spanish peninsula. But if this is so, why did the people pray for liberation through St James?
If we want to understand why the people of medieval Spain needed a defender, we need only look east to where a new Islamist caliphate, directly inspired by the medieval Moorish caliphate, is trying to take hold in Syria and Iraq. But those who would perpetuate the myth of an Andalusia under benevolent Muslim rule are, by and large, the same people who refused to report what is now happening in Iraq under the ‘Islamic State’. Then, as now, non-Muslims were heavily taxed in exchange for this so-called ‘toleration’. Then, like now in Iraq and Syria, those who preached against the Islamic State were beheaded or crucified. Then, as now, churches were destroyed, and people were forced to flee. Thankfully, prominent Muslim leaders of our times have now rejected the version of Islam currently being imposed by the ‘Islamic State’.
Nevertheless, persecuted Christians then, as now, prayed for deliverance. The Matamoros, therefore, is a sign of God coming in the person of his Apostle to save his people and to vindicate their prayers; God coming to defeat evil-doers and to re-establish justice.
We are right to be uncomfortable with the violent imagery of the Matamoros. For as the Holy Father said last weekend, “Violence isn’t overcome with violence. Violence is conquered with peace”. However, the Matamoros image is still meaningful because it is essentially not so much an incitement to war nor a justification of religious violence – for these can never be pleasing to God – but, rather, a dramatic depiction of divine protection and justice – for God will save us! The Scriptures are full of images and stories of God routing armies and defeating the enemies of Israel; we sing of this in the psalms every day. So, how are we to make sense of these, if not to see in them a promise that God will vindicate his people, that he will judge the wicked, and bring true justice? For there can be “no peace without justice” as Pope St John Paul II has said.
Indeed the Gospels make this point concerning St James and the other apostles too. For while the apostles are called to servant leadership, they are also called to mete out justice. For Christ does answer the mother of Zebedee’s request that her sons sit on heavenly thrones beside him. In the previous chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, he said: “when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). So, St James will be called to execute judgement with Christ; to rescue persecuted Christians, and to deliver justice, liberation, and peace to all people of good will.
Rightly, then, today do we ask St James to intercede for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. Rightly do we cry out to God for justice and peace in our world. Thus the medieval Spanish cried out: “Dios ayuda y Santiago”!
The great refrain of Christmastide is: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), and we recognize that in the Babe of Bethlehem, divine Love is made visible. Today’s feast picks up on these themes in its own way. For, as our Collect said, the Holy Innocents followed Christ “not by speaking but by dying”. So, words are insufficient – they have to be followed up by action; love has to be made visible in the flesh. What the Holy Innocents do, or have done to them, is that they die for Christ, in his stead.
Originally, today’s feast celebrated the Flight into Egypt. But very early on the Church was moved – by a motherly instinct, shall we say – to honour these Holy Innocents who were killed by Herod. In doing so, the Church broadened her understanding of Christian martyrdom. Martyrdom, witnessing to Christ, does not just encompass those who explicitly and consciously choose to die for Christ, such as St Stephen. We see today that martyrdom includes an implicit discipleship; an anticipated following of Christ who said that there is no greater love than to die for a friend (Jn 15:13). For in the death of the Holy Innocents, truly actions speak louder than words. They die for Christ, who is the truest Friend of Humanity. But they also die as victims of a tyrant.
The megalomanic’s lust for power, and the cut and thrust of politics made these Holy Innocents of Bethlehem the victims of violence and military might. And as innocent victims of the world’s evil, these saints are being honoured today as the first martyrs to be redeemed by the grace of Christ and suffer the so-called ‘baptism of blood’.
To my mind, today’s feast has a particularly contemporary resonance. Each year, I think of the millions of unborn babies in the womb who have been killed – victims of those who wield the power and presumed right to choose whether these holy innocents live or not; victims of gender politics, and our sinful world.
But this year, when we have seen so much warfare and violence especially in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa, I think, too, of the many children whose innocence is killed and whose lives are ruined by power, politics, and violence. The UN estimates that there are “300,000 child soldiers in at least twenty countries in the world today. As well as being forced to fight, children are used as spies, couriers, cooks and cleaners. Girls are often forced into sexual slavery”. And, “right now, children are fighting across the [African] continent: in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some are abducted or forcibly recruited, others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against them or their families. Children are more likely to become child soldiers if they are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or have limited access to education. Children may join armed groups as the only way to guarantee daily food and survival… these children are responding to economic, cultural, social and political pressures”. And all of them are, in some way, victims of tyranny, power, and the corruption of our world that matches and even exceeds king Herod’s.
So, it is for all these innocents that I pray and offer this Mass today. May the Christ Child have mercy and redeem them by his grace, and may the Holy Innocents in heaven pray for them. And, moved by a motherly instinct, may we – may the whole Church – work for the eradication of these and the other abuses of children, always giving voice to the voiceless – but not just in words but also in actions. For they, too, long to see the Love of God made visible in Christ, that is, in us, his Mystical Body on earth.
Today we celebrate a fourth-century bishop of Tours in France, who was one of the first Christian saints to be venerated without having been a martyr. Instead, he was called a confessor, meaning someone who lived a holy life. The martyrdom or witness of a confessor is that daily dying to self; taking up one’s cross and following Christ that we are all called to.
St Martin was born in Pannonia, the Roman Province that covers modern-day Hungary. His father was an officer in the Roman army and not a Christian. But, somehow, Martin heard of Christianity and at the age of 10 he secretly asked to become a catechumen – someone who was being instructed about the Faith. At the age of 15, he was still an unbaptised catechumen when he joined the Roman army, and he served in the cavalry.
One of the most famous stories about St Martin, which is often depicted in art, comes from his time as a soldier. One day he saw a poor naked beggar shivering in the cold at the gates of the city of Amiens where he was posted. Moved with compassion, Martin drew his sword and divided his red military cloak in two, and he gave one part to the beggar. During the night, Christ appeared to him in a dream wearing that half of the red cloak, and saying: “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me in this mantle”. The next day Martin went to be baptized. He was 18 years old at the time, and two years later he left the army because he desired to fight for Christ rather than for Caesar. So, eventually he was ordained, and with his mentor, St Hilary, he opposed the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ, so effectively that he was publicly scourged and exiled from Milan to Gaul. There, he established the first monastery in what became France, but was called from the cloister to the cathedral of Tours to serve as its bishop from 371. As bishop, he was opposed by many non-Christians but he slowly converted them by his holiness of life, preaching, and miracles.
After his death in 397, the cloak of St Martin came to be venerated as a sacred relic. That cloak, called a ‘capella’ lent its name to the small church housing it, from which we get the word ‘chapel’. And the priests who guarded that cloak were called ‘cappellani’, from which we get the word ‘chaplain’.
Every year, St Martin’s feast coincides with Armistice Day, which is appropriate given his peaceable life as a soldier, and his famous act of self-giving love. May he pray for all soldiers, for those who gave their life for the sake of their friends, and for all who die as a result of war and violence. May his example of service above all to Christ, the Prince of Peace, inspire all to strive for peace and justice in every situation. In the words of our First Reading, may all “rulers of the earth” “Love righteousness… think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart” (Wis 1:1).
The last fortnight alone has seen some very dramatic and terrifying attacks against Christians. In Pakistan, an Anglican church was attacked by two suicide bombers giving rise to the country’s bloodiest attack on Christians. 85 including children died; 120 injured. In Nairobi, the attackers of Westgate mall specifically targeted Christians. 72 executed; 240 injured. Last month, the ancient Christian town of Maaloula in Syria, one of the last places where Jesus’ mother-tongue of Aramaic is spoken, was decimated. Those who would not renounce Christ were martyred. In August, 3 days of violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt saw the destruction of 38 churches, the vandalism of 23, and Christians homes and shops burnt. To safeguard his flock, the Coptic pope cancelled Sunday liturgies for the first time in 1600 years. Since 2003, 40 of the 65 Christian churches in Baghdad have been bombed. In 2008, 500 Christians were killed, thousands injured and half a million left homeless after riots in Orissa, India by Hindu radicals. In Burma, the communist regime specifically targets Christians; unknown thousands have died, and many more been “routinely subjected to imprisonment, torture, and forced labour”. According to independent studies, “11 Christians are killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith”.
The reason for calling to mind this catalogue of anti-Christian violence is to point out that the historical context behind today’s feast day is not so remote from the present day experience of our fellow Christians. In the 15th and 16th centuries, being killed for being Christian was a grave reality too for many. The Ottoman empire was then marching across the Baltic and eastern Mediterranean, killing Christians in their wake. So, in May this year Pope Francis recalled this historical fact when he canonized 813 martyrs of the Italian city of Otranto killed by Ottoman Turks in 1480. But it wasn’t until this day in 1571 that the Ottoman threat against Christian Europe was abated by the defeat of Ali Pasha and his fleet at Lepanto off the southern coast of Greece. This victory marked a turning point in restoring peace and freedom to the Christian people.
The pope at that time, the Dominican saint Pius V, attributed this to Our Lady’s intercession because he had gathered the people of Rome to pray the Rosary on the morning of October 7th 1571. So, he instituted today’s feast to honour Our Lady, to commemorate her motherly protection, and to encourage us to pray that most Dominican of devotions, the Holy Rosary.
And it is precisely this that we should recall in today’s feast. We remember that in moments when the Christian people are being persecuted and under attack – both physically and spiritually – we need to turn to God in prayer. We do not take up arms, but take up the Holy Rosary. We do not stir up panic and alarm, but pray with confidence in Our Lady’s love and care. And we ask that through her intercession all people of good will can work with us for peace and reconciliation. For through the Rosary, our focus is the mysteries of salvation; how Christ has saved all people and called all into the unity and love that is God. Through the Rosary we seek refuge in him who is the reconciliation and peace of all Mankind, and whose victory on the Cross has brought us victory over every sin and evil including death.
The last fortnight, then, has seen many evils but also much good. Only yesterday, for example, 300 Christians and Muslims formed a human chain outside a Catholic church in Pakistan to protect worshippers within. And there have been many other such scenarios around the world as people of good will join together to create peace, build friendship, and live in harmony. The Rosary has often been used as a prayer for peace because Our Lady is the Queen of Peace, and she leads us to contemplate the face of her Son who is not just Truth but always Love. Therefore, as Pope Francis says: “As a truth of love, [Christ’s truth] is not one that can be imposed by force… Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful co-existence with others… Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith [in Christ] sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all” (Lumen Fidei, §14).
So at this time let us pray the Rosary for our many persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. As a Dominican priest in Iraq said: “We need your prayers… because I believe in the power of prayers. They can change the minds of other persons, and governments, and fundamentalist groups. Maybe they can become saints in the future - we do not know. So, I ask… everybody to pray for us”.
Violence in the name of religion, and more broadly, the human desire to compel someone to believe, or, failing that, to punish them for not “receiving” the same viewpoint seems to always lurk about in our human dealings with one another.
This baser instinct of humanity is so evident today in countries like Syria, for example, where, only three days ago, a Christian hermit, Fr François Mourad, was killed. What began as an uprising for greater civil liberties has become a sectarian war with powerful forces intent on wiping out the Christian presence in one of the oldest churches in the world, a Christian community with Biblical roots. But Fr Mourad is only the latest face and name in the on-going violence directed towards hundreds of thousands of our nameless and faceless brothers and sisters in Syria, and very many other places besides.
And our own Western nations are not only complicit in the on-going Syrian conflict, either through silence or the trafficking of arms, but we are also by no means immune from the baser human desire to compel others to “receive” our values and world views. Hence, in the name of toleration, social progress and equality, no alternative point of view that differs from the liberal Western zeitgeist seems to be tolerated. And the force of law, it appears, will not hesitate to do violence to the consciences of those who will not conform. Alas, violence – and not just in the name of religion – is, all too often, being inflicted by the powerful on the ‘other’, who is often dubbed a ‘bigot’ or some other alienating and dehumanizing name.
The Christian Church, it is true, has been shameful in not always having avoided this sinful and disturbing tendency either. So, today’s Gospel honestly shows two of the apostles, James and John, wanting to punish the hated Samaritans who “would not receive” Christ by calling down “fire from heaven” to burn them up. This seems to be the preferred force of the violent. For still today, fire from heaven in the form of missiles rains down on whole communities to punish those who will not acquiesce, to intimidate them into submission.
But violence is not to be waged in the name of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Indeed, this applies to all religions. As Pope Benedict XVI said to the people of Lebanon last year: “the basic message of religion must be against violence”. In today’s Gospel, then, Jesus firmly stands against violence, against force, against retaliation. Why? Because Christ stands for love, and there can never be any compulsion in love.
The Holy Spirit is called the parakletos, the One-Who-Is-Called-Alongside you and me. He stands beside us, as our friend, but also as our counsellor and advocate. The language being used here is deliberately legal, and one calls to mind a courtroom situation in which we stand accused. Often, many people think that God accuses us of our sins, or we might blame ourselves and feel downcast because of what we’ve done, or it may look like the Church is pointing fingers at people to condemn them as sinners. But this cannot be; it’s diabolical. Because, quite simply, the one who accuses us, the one who blames us, and points fingers at us, and wants us to stand condemned of sin is not God, and not his holy Church, but the Devil. The Devil is the diabolos, the one who hurls his accusations across at us. It is he who attacks you and me with recriminations, and so, causes fear and troubles us. But Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). Because against the prosecution of the Devil stands the parakletos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name to defend us, to raise us up through his grace, to restore us to peace.
For the peace that Christ gave us, which he won for us through his death and resurrection, and which we have through baptism, had been disturbed through sin. We experience a kind of disintegration in ourselves when we listen to Christ’s words, hear his teaching and say we love him, but we do not keep his word; we do not love him enough. So, sin splits us apart, and that is what the diabolos, the one who throws things apart, always wants to do – divide, splinter, and disintegrate. Thus, we find that we might know something to be good and true, we want to behave as children of the light, redeemed by Christ, but we don’t. We use our human freedom to choose our older ways – those more familiar and comfortable sins that our wills are too weak to resist. St Paul describes the situation vividly: “ I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” (Rom 7:15). And then, when we fail and fall, the Devil keeps us down, standing on our backs and telling us how rotten, how guilty, how hypocritical we are. It’s the kind of thing an unforgiving and judgmental Press metes out on public sinners, only far worse.
But in this darkness of sin and despair, as we’re being prosecuted and accused, we need to call out for our defence attorney; we just lack the ability to defend ourselves against so wily an Enemy. The Holy Spirit, we’re assured today, is the parakletos; we just need to call on him, and he will come alongside us as our defender. He comes to plead our case, to counsel and convince us. And what does he say?
“Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), says the Lord in today’s Gospel. And some might say that the pope we remember today, an Italian Dominican friar, wasn’t a man of peace. After all, Pope Pius V is remembered in England for excommunicating Elizabeth I and releasing Catholic subjects of their allegiance to the queen (in 1570), and he is also credited with having rallied the forces of Christendom, the so-called Holy League, in a great naval battle at Lepanto in 1571 against the Muslim Turks who threatened to overrun Europe.
And yet, St Pius V wasn’t really a belligerent man. He had been a shepherd before he joined the Dominicans, and he remained at heart a conscientious, austere and diligent shepherd, eager to maintain the safety and the peace of his flock. Even when he was serving as grand inquisitor under the previous pope, Paul IV, as Eamon Duffy notes, “he had fallen foul of Paul IV for excessive leniency”. And during the battle of Lepanto he had remained in Rome and gathered the people of the city in prayer, saying the Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on 7 October was instituted by Pope Pius V in thanksgiving for the victory at Lepanto, which he ascribed to Mary’s intercession.
For St Pius V’s primary concern wasn’t so much with the peace of the world – perhaps he felt this was not his duty. After all Christ had said: “Not as the world gives do I give [peace] to you” (Jn 14:27). Rather, Pius V’s concern and duty as pope, to whom Christ had entrusted his little flock, was to secure for God’s people the peace that only Jesus Christ could give; the peace that comes through a saving faith in him, through knowledge of the fullness of the Truth he taught, through a loving communion with Christ’s holy Church. So, as far as Pius V could see, Elizabeth I and the other Protestant leaders disrupted the peace and unity of the Church, and would prevent Catholics from practicing the fullness of the Christian faith in peace. This was even more certain with the Turkish forces who threatened the future of Christianity in Europe. Hence, St Pius bravely did what he felt he had to on these two fronts in order to secure peace for the Catholic faithful.
But even among his Catholic flock there was disturbance and turmoil brought about by moral laxity, poor theological formation, and corruption among the clergy. This seems to be a recurring theme in Church history, for the Church was once more in need of reform, and Pius V was elected in 1566 to implement the decrees of the reforming Council of Trent. In his six year pontificate, he radically reformed the Roman curia, reduced its costs, and disciplined wayward cardinals and clergy. Looking to the faith education of the laity and clergy, he published the Roman Catechism and promoted as a solid formation for seminarians the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas. He also promoted the unity and renewal of the Liturgy, putting in place an edition of the Roman Missal that remained essentially unchanged until Vatican II. Finally, he upheld the unity of theology in both the Eastern and Western Church.
All these works, which St Pius V laboured over until his death in 1572 were aimed at restoring unity and peace to Christ’s Church so that all within her Body might experience the unity and peace that Christ gave to his disciples. For Christ’s peace is found through the unity of faith, in the one saving Truth that Christ entrusted to his Church, and also in the consolation of her Liturgy and sacraments, for in these we encounter Jesus Christ who is our peace.
So, today, we give thanks to God for Pope St Pius V who shepherded Christ’s flock with such diligence and personal holiness of life, and we ask him to pray for the Church that she may be ever more united in the peace of Christ.
“No man is an island”, it’s said. And how true that is. This was so evident as we recalled last night the centuries of benefactors, collaborators and friends who have worked and prayed together with us friars to bring us to this day, to the building of this chapel with this Altar, now duly dedicated, at its heart. In a sense, this chapel reminds us of the debt of gratitude that we owe to those who have gone before us, to those who make up our community today, and above all, to God.
But one thing I increasingly realize, especially living in community, is that because none of us is an island, nobody is self-sufficient and in-dependent of another. We need one another, and we rely on one another to work, build, and celebrate together. And this is to be expected because as human persons we are essentially relational, born into a family community, and then, gradually joining other communities and networks. It is from these communities, from our relationship with others and our dependence on them that we find meaning, and also find ourselves. So, we are each indebted to the other, closely knitted in community by bonds of mutual need and trust, by bonds of love.
In every Mass we pray after the Our Father for “peace and unity” to be granted to God’s holy Church, and today we celebrate a saint and martyr whose life was devoted to safeguarding the unity and peace of the Church. In this way, he was true to his name, Irenaeus, which means ‘peace’.
Born around 135-40 in Smyrna, which is now called Izmir in Turkey, Irenaeus was mentored by bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle St John. By 177 he had moved to Lyons in Gaul, where he is one of the priests ministering to the Greek-speaking Christian community there. That community sent him to Rome to take a letter to the pope, and while he was in Rome, the church in Lyons was attacked by Marcus Aurelius. 48 were martyred including the bishop. So, when Irenaeus returned to Lyons he was appointed bishop, and he taught the Faith, and defended it against the Gnosticism – a dualist heresy that set a good spiritual God against a negative Principle that produced all matter, that was thus, evil, in the world. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was sent to liberate Man from matter, setting his spirit free, but this superior and secret knowledge (gnosis) was only given to some Christians called the spirituals. This heresy was prevalent throughout the 2nd century and it divided the Church. These dualistic ideas probably sound familiar since versions of it crop up repeatedly, and St Dominic and his Order arose to respond to the 13th-century version of it called Catharism. So, St Irenaeus arose in the 2nd century to counteract Gnosticism, and he laboured until his death around 202-3 during another wave of persecution by the Emperor Septimus Severus.
Given the violence and persecution in Irenaeus’ lifetime and his own martyrdom, evidently, the peace that he is credited with bringing to the Church is not temporal peace. Rather, it is a peace that comes from being built upon the rock that is our one true Faith in Jesus Christ. As bishop and teacher of this Faith, then, St Irenaeus defended the people of God from the violence and divisiveness of heretical ideas, and united the Church in Lyons to the wider Church of his mentor St Polycarp: the Church of St John and the apostles, who, unlike the Gnostics, openly taught the common faith and knowledge of salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. So, in an unbroken line, the Apostolic Fathers taught with Christ’s authority, and their successors continue to do so today.
As St Irenaeus wrote in his book, Against Heresies, “The Church, though dispersed throughout the world… having received [this faith from the Apostles]… as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world” (1, 10, 1-2).
It is this unity and peace, coming from an adherence to the one Faith in the one Lord that we pray for in the Mass. For it is this unity and peace that is signified when we receive the one Bread and the one Cup that makes us “one body, one spirit in Christ”.
HOMILY for the Memorial of St Philip Neri – preached at the Charismatic Day of Renewal in Edinburgh (26 May 2012)
I’m sure we’ve all prayed for God to give us his Holy Spirit. Today’s saint, Philip Neri, did this many times but on the eve of Pentecost in 1544 something unique happened, and today’s Collect alludes to it. While he was praying in the catacombs near Rome, St Philip was suddenly filled with great joy, and had a vision of the Holy Spirit, who appeared to him as a ball of fire. This fire entered into his mouth, and descended to his heart, causing it to expand to twice its normal size, and breaking two of his ribs in the process! St Philip said that this filled his whole body with such joy and consolation that he finally had to throw himself on the ground and cry out, “No more, Lord! No more!” From that day onwards, St Philip often felt the fire of the Spirit warming his heart, so much so that he often had his cassock unbuttoned at the chest, and his heart used to beat violently and loudly when he prayed or preached!
I don’t suppose many of us will have had this kind of charismatic experience, but for St Philip it was not the mystical experience that mattered but rather the effect of his Pentecost moment. And this should be true for us too. From that day onwards, St Philip was constantly aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life, and he remained open to God’s Spirit and co-operative with his grace. He became a “vessel of the Holy Spirit” as Blessed John Henry Newman called him, so that he was transformed by God’s love, and bore the sweet fruit of the Spirit that drew others to Christ: the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” as St Paul names them. And so, he became a most attractive saint, cheerful and full of joy, drawing many to Christ even today.
Like us, St Philip lived at a time that was said to be “captivated by beauty, freed from all control, and suspicious of any restraint…” but the effect of his Pentecost experience made him a “Second Apostle of Rome” because he and his congregation of the Oratory initiated a new evangelization for a city that had become lukewarm in its Christian faith. Quite simply, people were drawn to the radical freedom he showed, the freedom and joy of a child of God, who was liberated by the Spirit from the bondage of sin to be truly free to love, to enjoy the good, and to serve Christ in others. St Philip’s example has much to teach us today if we also desire a new evangelization in our time, if we also want to be filled with the Spirit of Pentecost and sent out as apostles into our families, communities, and cities.
So, how did St Philip remain open to the Spirit’s grace? He had a reverent love of the Mass and of Christ in the Eucharist, he valued frequent Confession, especially in order to advance in purity of heart, and he prayed that every day might be another Pentecost. As he said himself: “The Holy Spirit is the master of prayer and causes us to abide in continual peace and cheerfulness, which is a foretaste of Paradise. We ought to pray God fervently to increase in us every day the light and heat of his goodness”. So, let us pray in this Mass with St Philip and all the saints: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love”.