4 – 5 June
Missa Spiritus Domini
Gifts and Fruits: Saint Philip and the Pentecost change of heart
The Solemnity of Pentecost is a fitting time for us to think about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of our Glorious Patriarch, Saint Philip Neri. He is called, like those first Eleven, gathered around Our Lady, an “apostle” – he is the Apostle of Rome. We’d be right to think that the word “apostle” applies to those initial Eleven, who were apostles by hierarchy: they were chosen by Our Lord to be the foundation of His Mystical Body, the Church, as that striking image of the Eternal Temple in the Book of Revelation describes them (cf. Apo. 21:4). They are hierarchical apostles, who received the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost Sunday, gathered around the Blessed Virgin (cf. Acts 1:14).
But what about Saint Philip, then? He wasn’t present then; he was only born in 1515! Yet he is rightly an apostle – one who is, according to the Greek, “called to be sent”. And into his heart, God poured out many gifts to make this Florentine a worthy Apostle of Rome. He is an apostle by charism, by the gifts of the Holy Spirit that he received.
We are all familiar by now with an episode from the early life of our Holy Father: how, on the Vigil of Pentecost in 1544, after many hours of prayer in Saint Sebastian’s Catacombs (the underground martyrs’ graves) on the Appian Way, in Rome, Saint Philip experienced his own Pentecost. As Saint Philip described to Father Consolini days before his death in 1595, our Holy Father saw a ball of fire descend from heaven, and settle into his heart. This caused a physical change in Saint Philip: his heart expanded, and his ribs dislodged to accommodate this newly enlarged heart. It made it possible for his lungs to expand for greater breaths so that he could cope with these new palpitations of love; he could now draw longer breaths to cool his heated body. He would sit outside, in the winter, with his shirt unbuttoned to try and reduce the experience of this supernatural heat. These were some of the exterior effects of the Pentecost in Saint Philip. In some way, it’s as though God’s Own Heart, full of love for the whole world, willed to live in the chest of His Servant, Philip.
But God had poured His Spirit into the hearts of the Apostles, too. Saint Philip’s mystical experience of Pentecost reflects the external experiences that the Apostles had in the Book of Acts: tongues of fire descend on their heads; the Upper Room where they gather seems to enlarge to accommodate a large gust of wind which inspires the Hierarchical Apostles. They are filled with joy and enthusiasm to proclaim God’s Own Love and Power now freshly present in them. They were able to proclaim God’s Own Power present in His Church, now enlivened by the Very Spirit of God Himself.
Both the hierarchical Apostles, and the Apostle of Rome, are called to be sent with these visible, tangible signs. And what would God have them do?
Miracles in the body
One work of the Holy Spirit in their lives was exterior, in the miracles they performed for others. These miraculous moments, prophesied by Our Lord as being greater than the signs that He performed (cf. Jn14:12), would show God’s love to the new Church. We could think about the command of Saint Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, to the lame man at the Beautiful Gate: “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give thee: in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6) And so the man does. There are, of course, many of these miracles in the life of Saint Philip too: strong, apostolic signs in the sixteenth century. He raised the dead, and brough immediate relief to those who came to see him. He cured a boy with an eye infection by prayer alone; his presence caused demons to flee defeated. Both he, and the hierarchical apostles, demonstrated God’s love in these external, bodily signs.
Miracles in the soul
But the Holy Spirit didn’t only work in these external marvels. There was also a silent work, an interior work, deep in the hearts of those who heard the Apostles and of our Apostle, Saint Philip, too. At the preaching of Saint Peter on Pentecost Day, the listeners were “cut to the quick” (Acts 2:37) – they were convicted of sin, and convinced of the Truth. How was this possible? The Holy Spirit, Who had come to rest with the Eleven, gave them the words and the courage to preach Christ Crucified, Risen and Ascended to glory. And the hearts of the people were moved; they turned to God. They realised their own lives couldn’t be the same anymore in the face of such love. An interior miracle occurs: they experience a change of heart, and come to be baptised. While Saint Philip was a talented preacher, we could wonder whether his work with hearts is not better demonstrated in the confessional, where hardened sinners were brought to conversion. He had the mysterious gift of prophecy and knowledge, being able to reveal to his penitents what they had not even confessed (frightening as that might sound!). To this he added his fatherly charm – and sometimes brute force! – to bring the lost back to the fold. He showed to all who came to confession the tenderness of this “Sweetest of Fathers”, as our Saint John Henry Newman called him. These interior miracles, though silent, are no less impressive – in the life of faith – than the exterior ones.
Miracles in us?
But what about us? God won’t number us amongst the Foundational Twelve. He isn’t calling us to travel back to Renaissance Rome. But God has chosen us, and wills to send us. He has chosen us in the visible sign, the sacrament, of baptism. No tongues of fire, and no ball of fire, but the flicker of a candle light from the Easter Candle, the saving waters and the sacred formula from the mouth of the priest. In these powerful external – sacramental – signs, God has claimed us for Himself, and for His work.
And what might that work be? It might not be the bringing about of external miracles, like healings or resurrections. (The Spirit blows where He wills, though; Jn 3:8.) But God has already let us experience, many times, the interior miracle of His grace, moving our hearts to Him. And this movement should cause us to move others to His love, too.
How can we become better “apostles”?
How can we become more aware of what the apostolate to which God has called us is? Saint Philip might have some guidance to offer us in this regard.
(1) Pray every day for the Gifts of the Spirit
Even the earliest biographers of our Saint said that he prayed fervently, and daily, for the gifts of the Spirit. He asked God to send the Seven-fold mystery into his heart: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. To this, he would have added the Theological Virtues of faith, hope and charity. These gifts, these virtues, are what Saint Thomas Aquinas would call “infused”: they are put by God, at our invitation, into our souls (cf. Summa I-II q.68). There is nothing we can do to bring them about naturally, or to perfect them according to our works. God is the Giver, Assessor and Perfector of these gifts.
And the Lord wills to give them generously. Let’s ask for them every day. We might even use Saint John Henry Newman’s Prayer to Saint Philip for the Gifts of the Spirit. (It will be given at the end of this text.)
(2) Live fruitfully according to the Spirit
These infused gifts are given to us to produce fruit. It is a sign of a healthy tree that it bears fruit: we recall the curse Our Lord offered to the barren fig tree (cf. Mk 11:12-25)! When the gifts of the Spirit are alive and active in us, there is scope for the fruit of their existence to grow and be seen. They indicate that we are a home for the Holy Spirit, Who is performing the interior miracles of grace deep within us.
Love, joy, peace, and the rest of that famous list from Saint Paul (Gal. 5:22-23). But also modesty, chastity and generosity: these are signs that the Spirit has made His home in our hearts. The more we choose to live fruitfully, the more we welcome this Divine Guest, and let His stay within us become more enduring.
We might be faced with a challenge, which (we feel) needs a short and sharp response. It would put a difficult party in his place. And as we are about to move impatiently, we pause, and allow the Spirit of God to breathe His cooling breath on us, and we consecrate the moment to Him, asking for our conversation to show the fruit that will last. We move from impatience, to patience, and allow the fruitfulness of God to be evident in us. It requires patience to be patient! But God’s fruitfulness will bring change to our lives.
To be fruitful, then, to live according to the Spirit, and not the flesh, we should avoid ambition, self-centredness, lust and greed (cf. Rom. 8). We should try our best to live virtuously; this takes daily practice, and demands many good choices. It isn’t always easy work, or rapidly achieved: the result will be fruit that truly lasts (cf. Jn15:16).
(3) “Prepare the ground” through the Sacramental life of the Church
No great gifts, uncared for, produce good fruit. Art masters who don’t take up their brushes paint poorly. Musicians who don’t practice play embarrassingly. Christians who don’t let God prepare their hearts for His gifts don’t produce fruit.
How do we prepare the ground for these gifts, allowing them to be fruitful in us?
It’s no wonder that Saint Philip, whom Newman called the “Vessel of the Holy Spirit”, had a great devotion to confession and the Holy Eucharist. Is this not, then, the way that we prepare our hearts for God’s gifts? Or, rather: is this not how we let the Holy Spirit prepare us to receive His gifts?
Frequent confession, and, then, devout reception of Holy Communion, will make us more able to receive God’s Gifts and bear fruit for Him in the world. We become more and more sensitive to the things of heaven, to the life of the Spirit, and less and less bothered by the things of the world. We’re able to trust fully in God’s mercy, and to depend on the One Who will never desert us: He’s present for us at Mass, and all the time in the Blessed Sacrament; how could He ever leave us alone?
We are called. We need to be ready to be sent, to be like Apostles for the Lord in the world. God wills to make a home in our hearts, too, expanding them (spiritually) to accommodate our love for Him, and the world. Like Saint Philip, let’s pray every day for the Gifts of the Spirit, choose to live fruitfully for the Lord, and commit ourselves to the Sacraments of the Church. In them, the Holy Spirit chooses to dwell; will we let Him live in us, too? Amen
SAINT JOHN HENRY NEWMAN’S PRAYER TO SAINT PHILIP FOR THE GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT
O my dear and holy Patron, Philip,
I put myself into thy hands, and for the love of Jesus, for that love’s sake, which chose thee and made thee a saint, I implore thee to pray for me, that, as He has brought thee to heaven, so in due time He may take me to heaven also.
And I ask of thee especially to gain for me a true devotion such as thou hadst
to the Holy Ghost, the Third Person in the Ever-blessed Trinity;
that, as He at Pentecost so miraculously filled thy heart with his grace,
I too may in my measure have the gifts necessary for my salvation.
Therefore I ask thee to gain for me those His seven great gifts,
to dispose and excite my heart towards faith and virtue.
Beg for me the gift of Wisdom,
that I may prefer heaven to earth, and know truth from falsehood:
The gift of Understanding,
by which I may have imprinted upon my mind the mysteries of His Word:
The gift of Counsel,
that I may see my way in all perplexities:
The gift of Fortitude,
that with bravery and stubbornness I may battle with my foe:
The gift of Knowledge,
to enable me to direct all my doings with a pure intention to the glory of God:
The gift of Religion,
to make me devout and conscientious:
And the gift of Holy Fear,
to make me feel awe, reverence and sobriety amid all my spiritual blessings.
Sweetest Father, Flower of Purity, Martyr of Charity, pray for me. Amen.