The very thought of a “saint” intimidates many of us. On the one hand, we intensely admire a St. Francis or St. Thérèse of Lisieux. On the other, we are awestruck, humbled, and perhaps a little unnerved by such supernatural virtue. For most of us live more ordinary lives and tend to identify with the virtues that seem within reach, what we can see as our best selves projected before us. We may recoil, however reverently, at a degree of spiritual development that we cannot—or is it will not? —make our own.
Enter St. Philip Neri, a sixteenth-century man whose feast day this month—May 26—should remind us that he was a pillar of the Counter-Reformation Church and yet also a saint for all seasons. The recent quadricentennial of his canonization—four hundred years ago last spring—signifies not his remoteness from us, but rather his remarkable nearness. For a saint, Philip was remarkably ordinary. One might even say he was extraordinary in his ordinariness. He should therefore both inspire and console us. He was not a brilliant thinker, not a spellbinding homilist, not a visionary seer, not a missionary bestriding the globe. He was instead something equally if not more valuable: a divinely blessed listener and a pilgrim of Eucharistic joy. This combination made him an outstanding and indefatigable confessor who regularly devoted hours each day—sometimes as many as sixteen!—to hearing confessions. He heard them even on his sickbed.
But what St. Philip of Neri was even better known for was his mirth, his high jinks and infectious laughter. As the adage has it: he seemed to have wings because he took himself so lightly. Nothing got him down. Endlessly grateful for the blessings of Providence, he was constantly chuckling. His example, following in the tradition of holy fools of earlier centuries, helped serve to modify and even upend the old notion that Christians shouldn’t laugh, which had even been codified as a requirement for humility (precept number 10) in The Rule of St. Benedict.
Because of his capacity to listen and his gift for friendship, people found Philip utterly lovable: a master who cultivated boundless sympathy and yet somehow maintained ﬁrm detachment and objectivity toward his friends. His power to direct and edify people through ordinary conversation led his follower Cardinal Agostino Valerio to dub him “the Christian Socrates.”