(Guido Reni – Saint Philip Contemplating the Virgin in the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella)
Founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, also known as the Congregation of Fillippinis after his forename, Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595) was often referred to as the joyful saint because of his cheerful disposition. Inspired by the early Christian communities, he wanted to anchor an intense spiritual life in daily routine, based on prayer (he was one of the first to gather laymen around him with whom he prayed), reading, meditating on the word of God, and praising the Lord, mainly through chant and music. According to him, music was a special way of reaching people’s heart and bringing them closer to God. Thus he became one of the most avid defenders of the rebirth of sacred music. In 1544, while the saint was praying in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian over the tombs of the early martyrs, his heart was suddenly seized with immense joy and an intense light shone down on him.
Raising his eyes, he saw a ball of fire which descended to his mouth and penetrated his chest. HIs heart, in contact with the flames, instantly dilated. The violence of the impact broke two of his ribs. The Holy Spirit had come to the saint, just as it had to the Apostles at Pentecost.
In the 17th century, a scientific autopsy on his body confirmed that his was twice the size of any other human heart. Nothing was the same again for Saint Philip. The beating of his heart was so strong that it could be heard some distance away and the heat that constantly devoured him meant that he could face the rigours of winter in his shirtsleeves.
The symbol of the congregation today, a heart in flames, is based on this episode in his life. While looking after the sick, the poor and the inform, he also took time to spend with young people, wishing to stop them from falling into boredom and depression. He often gathered a group around him and while always reminding them that life was to be lived joyfully, when the din became too loud one day, he is supposed to have said, “Quieten down a bit, my friends, if you can!”. It is also said that his spiritual gifts enabled him to bring a child back to life for a few minutes. (A story about this incident is to follow).
(Adapted from Secret Rome – JonGlez)