St Philip Neri and the Gift of the Spirit


We have begun some meditations upon Redemptor hominis, about Christ revealing “man to himself” and about the crisis of our time in the degradation of the image of man. To commemorate the Feast of Pentecost we should look to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit to appreciate the full scope of the nature and destiny of man as it is unfolded in Redemptor hominis. Christian life transforms human existence so that rationality and freedom open out to a higher goal. Thomas Aquinas states tersely, “Man was made to see God: to this end God made his creature rational, so that he could participate in his likeness, which consists in the vision of God.” (De veritate q 18, a. 1,5) Pope John Paul II emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the reception of “image and likeness” to God:

“Man in his own humanity receives as a gift a special ‘image and likeness’ to God. This means not only rationality and freedom as constitutive properties of human nature, but also, from the very beginning, the capacity of having a personal relationship with God, as ‘I’ and ‘you’, and therefore the capacity of having a covenant, which will take place in God’s salvific communication with man. Against the background of the ‘image and likeness’ of God, ‘the gift of the Spirit’ ultimately means a call to friendship, in which the transcendent ‘depths of God’ become in some way opened to participation on the part of man. The Second Vatican Council teaches: ‘The invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself.'” DOMINUM ET VIVIFICANTEM §34

The Incarnation of Christ made manifest this call from God to friendship with Him. He lived among us. The apostles were witness to his life, they became his friends. After his departure from this earth he promised the gift Holy Spirit so that we could continue to live with him. Cardinal Newman states: “He comes to us as Christ came, by a real and personal visitation . . . both in the Church and in the souls of individual Christians.” (The Indwelling Spirit) Newman says that by the Holy Spirit we are regenerated and we can receive back “a portion of that freedom in willing and doing, of that uprightness and innocence, in which Adam was created.” Indeed, he says further “It is plain that such an inhabitation brings the Christian into a state altogether new and marvelous, far above the possession of mere gifts, exalts him inconceivably in the scale of beings, and gives him a place and an office which he had not before. In St. Peter’s forcible language, he becomes ‘partaker of the Divine Nature,’ and has ‘power’ or authority, as St. John says, ‘to become the son of God.'”

Newman’s idea of our being “exalted inconceivably in the scale of beings” helps us understand why Pope John Paul II started his pontificate with Redemptor hominis. It is part of his “peering into the Gospel” and seeing the beauty of redemption. This gift of the Spirit comes to us with Baptism. Yet we do not begin to live up to our new found “place and office” as a son or daughter of God. That is why we need the witness of the saints. They make manifest in every age the personal visitation of the Spirit and the effects of this visitation; the dramatic signs of their sanctity should not mislead us into thinking that they did not cooperate with God through the normal means offered by the Church for sanctification. The became holy though the same sacraments given to us. But still, the drama can often startle us into greater devotion. So I come to the case of St. Philip Neri whose Feast we celebrate on Wednesday, May 26. To ready ourselves for celebrating his Feast day, it may be helpful to recall his special connection to Pentecost.

As a young man he spent hours in prayer beseeching the Holy Spirit to grant him gifts to know and love God. Once on the Eve of the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered into Philip’s being as a ball of fire which knocked him down and enlarged his heart. The fire in his heart persisted through his life. Fr Bouyer in his short book, Roman Socrates, (find it here) explains it this way:

“This astonishingly human saint was saturated in the supernatural; this Florentine, while being truly a man of his times, seems to have stepped out of the Acts of the Apostles. Even the fire of Pentecost was for him a personal experience as we shall explain; certainly his astonishing serenity in the midst of the world can only be explained in the last analysis by the interior presence of an inextinguishable flame. This experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his soul remains profoundly mysterious; it seems to have overflowed from his soul upon his body, foreshadowing the promised transfiguration of the resurrection. The heavenly fire seems, moreover, to have made itself felt through his heart to the extent of producing an inexplicable yet perceptible heat, while the marks of its presence remained within his breast, for it was revealed by the autopsy that the violent action of the heart had displaced two ribs. He described the experience briefly, on the eve of his death, to Consolirmi; it seems that about the year 1544, while praying in the catacombs, he had the vision of a ball of fire which entered his mouth and settled in his heart.”

I found a fuller account in a book I picked up at a used bookstore in Dublin for 50p, The Life of Philip Neri, by Mrs. Hope (Burns and Oates, 1891):

“Throughout his whole life Philip had a special devotion to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. As a layman, he was in the habit of praying daily for the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit; and when he came to be a priest, he never omitted to use the collect beginning with, ‘Deus cui omne cor patet,’ whenever he could. In the year 1544, shortly before Pentecost, he was in the usual catacomb, praying with more than ordinary fervour to be filled with the Holy Spirit, when suddenly there appeared to him a luminous sphere, like a globe of fire, which, entering his lips, passed into his breast. At the same moment he felt within him a flame of rapturous love. . . . he threw himself to the ground and tore open his dress. After a time . . . he arose , when an unusual joy thrilled through his soul, and at the same time his whole body was agitated by a strange palpitation; and as he placed his hand on his side just over his heart, he felt it was swollen, though it did not give him the slightest pain.” (p. 12)

At the end of her book, Mrs. Hope reported that, after he died, “the body was opened in te presence of the first physicians of Rome; and then was seen, what has already been told, that the swelling which had existed since the day when he had so miraculously received the Holy Spirit, was caused by two of the ribs over the heart being broken and elevated in the form of an arch. It was no small subject of wonder to the physicians that the ribs should never have reunited, and that he should have lived thus for fifty years without suffering any pain; and . . . they affirmed . . . under oath, that the case was supernatural and miraculous.” (pp. 198-199)

Fr. Bouyer points out that Cardinal Newman’s Litany to St Philip has a reference to this experience: In the Litany composed in his honor by Newman we find an invocation which sums up everything, “Cor flammigerum, ora pro nobis!” [Fiery Heart, Pray for Us!]

We must not pray for sensible manifestations or consolations, of course. But like Philip, do we pray every day for the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Do we take to heart the Letter of James: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” (1:5) And “Every good endowment and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of Lights.” (1:17)

In speaking of lay apostolate, the Council Fathers said: “each one has received suitable talents and these should be cultivated, as should also the personal gifts he has received from the Holy Spirit.” (Lay Apostolate §4).

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