The Secret of Saint Philip Neri


September 1, 1996

The readings for the day of St. Philip Neri include St. Paul’s counsel to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.” St. Philip took St. Paul at his word. “Allegramente! Allegramente!” he regularly urged his companions, inviting them to “be of good cheer.” The accounts of Philip depict a person and a piety of exuberance. Some thought his exuberance excessive. In fact, one of the many biographies is titled The Fire of Joy. Fire warms and illuminates, but fire can also destroy, as in the burning of the withered branches in the Gospel for Philip’s day.

St. Philip Neri’s fire of joy did not destroy; it was not uncontrolled or undirected. He did not rejoice in rejoicing. Nor was rejoicing a mandate, a thing to be forced. St. Paul does not command but invites us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Note that the invitation is to rejoice in the Lord. The fire of joy is not ignited by us and our desire to be joyful, but by the gift of joy that is Christ. There is no greater joy, there can be no greater joy, than Christ.

In the words of St. Philip: “He who wants something other than Christ, does not know what he wants; he who seeks something other than Christ, does not know what he seeks; he who works for something other than Christ, does not know what he is doing.” In sum, apart from Christ, we are withered branches that the fire destroys.

Rejoice in the Lord always. The fire of joy is not uncontrolled or undirected. The joy of St. Philip comes with a Christocentric premise and Christocentric proviso. Perhaps it is the exuberance of the personal bond of friendship that has his companion Cardinal Baronius praying to Philip: “To thee we fly, from thee we seek aid; to thee we give our whole selves unreservedly.” Or maybe it is only the Italian temper in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon. More controlled and directed is Cardinal Newman’s Hymn to St. Philip: “Love is his bond, he knows no other fetter,/ Asks not our all, but takes whate’er we spare him,/ Willing to draw us on from good to better,/ As we can bear him.”

We may want to give our whole selves unreservedly, but St. Philip asks not our all. He asks not our all because our all has been claimed by the Christ who claimed him. Philip would not be loved except in Christ and for Christ. Rejoice in the Lord always.

St. Philip’s day falls on the eve of Pentecost. The Spirit is given to all but must be appropriated by each. Each of us walks in his own way the path of discipleship, accompanied by Philip and all the saints who are drawing us on “from good to better,” until in us is accomplished the best.

To each Philip offers his help “as we can bear him.” He does not force himself. He and the Oratory he founded make much of friendship. Like a true friend, Philip respects the distinctiveness of the other’s way. As he also asks his friends to respect his way. That is the nature of friendship when friendship is in the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.

As with his contemporary Ignatius Loyola, so also with Philip, there is a deep Christianizing of the Renaissance discovery of the individual. We are today so beset by the mad-nesses of unbridled individualism that we are tempted to forget the importance of that discovery. In its deeply Christianized form, it is the unfolding, many centuries later, of St. Paul’s cry of joy to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” The individual in Christ is what John Paul II calls the “acting person.” Each person is the inviolable meeting point, the nexus, between the transcendent and immanent, between the divine and the human, between contingent freedom and eternal destiny.

Friendship in Christ respects the inviolability of the other. The yearning for intimacy is surrendered in obedience to the mystery that is the other. The other is nothing less than the mystery of Christ, who lives in the other and in whom the other lives. To respect the otherness of the other is to respect Christ. When pressed too hard about that innermost meeting with the Lord, St. Philip would respond, Secretum meum mihi—my secret is my own. Christian friendship is marked not by full disclosure, which is never possible in any case, but by the acknowledgment of the mystery that is the other.

We may paraphrase St. Philip: “He who wants friendship other than in Christ does not know what he wants.” Friendship in Christ is rejoicing in one another because, together, we rejoice in the Lord. It is not contemplating one another, but, together, contemplating Christ. What Newman calls the “fetter” of love is worn lightly, for it is the fetter of Christ’s love that sets us free to let the other be.

In the Oratory, in all our friendships, in the sacred bond of matrimony, this truth holds. Love keeps its distance even as it draws near; it does not absorb the other or want to be absorbed by the other, but rejoices in the otherness of the other. Secretum meum mihi: My secret is my own, says the other, and love is glad that it should be so.

Philip burned with the fire of joy. He was, says a biographer, larger than life. But that is wrong. Rather, he showed us how large life is. He was aflame with the fire of life. Like the burning bush, he burned and burned and was not consumed. His was a century charged with the grandeur of radical devotion. In the entrance to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome is a striking statue of Ignatius with the motto Ite incendite—”Go set the world aflame”—his parting words to Francis Xavier.

There are different ways of burning and different ways of setting the world aflame. The Oratorian fire is surrounded by playfulness. It is not a matter of playing with fire, but of knowing the fire that we cannot bear. Philip is, in the words of Newman, “willing to draw us on from good to better, /As we can bear him.” To bear him is to bear his fire. His fire is the fire of Christ, and the fire of Christ is the love of God. “I have been wounded by love,” St. Philip told his friends. The love of God—his love for us and ours for him—is too much to bear. Philip could not fully disclose his experience of Pentecost for it was not his to disclose. The fire—God’s love for us, God’s love in us—belongs to God.

Philip’s playfulness some took to be frivolity. His friends called him a fool for Christ; others called him simply a fool; and he appeared not to mind which he was thought to be. “It seems,” writes one biographer, “he put on his clown’s disguise in order to hide his love.” Perhaps so. It may have been about hiding his love, hiding his wound. We remember his words, secretum meum mihi—my secret is my own. But I wonder if the clown’s disguise was not intended to disclose that this love that each must make his own is something that—as St. Paul says of the peace of God in the same passage from Philippians—”surpasses all understanding.”

Philip and faithful Philippians know that some things are much too serious to be treated seriously, too solemn for our solemnity. Putting on our serious and solemn best might imply that we understand such things. Before that which surpasses all understanding, we disclose by hiding, speak by silence, and do obeisance in play. It is not for nothing that the Oratorian tradition has so strongly accented the sacred play that is liturgy. The clown’s disguise, then, is a looking away from the heart of the matter, a kind of hiding that declares that there is a heart of the matter, and that it surpasses all our serious and solemn ways. To the heart of the matter, which is the love that wounds, Philip and the Philippians of the Oratory bear witness by their foolishness.

Once again, I expect Newman got it right. “Thus [Philip] conducts, by holy paths and pleasant,/ Innocent souls and sinful souls forgiven,/ Towards the bright palace, where our God is present,/ Throned in high heaven.”

“Holy paths and pleasant” are not an alternative way, an easier way, to the bright palace. There is only one way. The One who called St. Philip and the One who calls us called him and calls us to the way of the Cross. For those who respond to that call, for those who have been wounded by the love of the Crucified, for those who have died with Christ, the worst, the secret because unspeakable worst, no longer threatens. Ahead lie holy paths and pleasant, along which, with St. Philip in the lead, they skip and dance in festive procession, singing all the while, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.”


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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