A Cheerful Remedy for a Humorless World

St. Philip Neri
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We live in a humorless world overrun by political distemper, with growing divisions forming between a camp endorsing wholesale collective reengineering along fault lines of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and those who favor the preservation of the civic order and institutions and the inherent dignity of the individual. The result of this discord is a society that is increasingly driven by anger, envy, fear, and vengefulness. 

It is tempting to be drawn into the fray of this societal turmoil and conclude that we must fight fire with fire in the form of political rebuke, that out-militating the militants will restore the right order of a society dedicated to the idea that individuals are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  However, as Christians, we are called to much more than impersonal earthly activism—we are compelled to evangelize through our individual interactions with those around us, as personal ambassadors for Christ in our own time and place. If we struggle to find models of this behavior among those in public life today, we would be wise to learn from the examples of the saints, such as St. Philip Neri, whose Feast Day we celebrate today.

Philip Neri was born in Florence in the early sixteenth century and was one of four children. He grew up in a society notoriously plagued by corruption among the people and indifference among the clergy, a moral decay which served as the grist for a generation of spiritual reformers within the Church, of whom Philip would be one. His parents had planned for young Philip to develop the skills of a merchant under the tutelage of his wealthy uncle, but a conversion experience at age 18 led him to eventually abandon both his mercantile pursuits and his studies in order to dedicate himself to prayer and service to God. 

Much like his contemporary St. Francis Xavier, Philip’s early life was marked by an ambition to serve as a foreign missionary in India. However, under the counsel of his confessor, he dedicated himself to service in the City of Popes through a life of ascetic simplicity and energetic street ministry, which would lead him to become known as “the Apostle of Rome.” A deep and intense personal prayer life animated Philip’s apostolate among Roman street people and pilgrims, whom he engaged in personal conversation that led to many conversions to the faith. In a call to action, he would regularly lead followers to accompany him in service to sick pilgrims in the hospital San Giacomo degli Incurabili. His winsome and affable nature, together with humility and humor, gained for Philip a following among poor laymen, which led to his founding of the Confraternity of the Oratory. Contemporaries such as St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius of Loyola, who wished to conscript him into the nascent Society of Jesus, were drawn to his simplicity of life, faithful zeal, and good cheer.

Over five hundred years after the birth of St. Philip Neri, our present-day society is plagued by a wave of spiritual indifference and moral corruption that would probably be familiar to Philip if he lived in our day. A hallmark of today’s zeitgeist is the belief that overarching systems of power and oppression are the causative agents for the most notorious perceived societal ills of our time. 

According to those who shape the narrative, the scourges of racism, income inequality, and environmental degradation (among other perceived injustices) are the result of systemically unfair machinations that must be dismantled in order to achieve the supreme good of equity. Rather than relying on dialogue or open debate, the scorched-earth and humorless approach to righting injustice involves calling out the perceived offenders (individuals or institutions), ridiculing or cancelling them in righteous indignation, and intimidating others who might secretly harbor any objection. With a rewriting of the rules for civil discourse and the abolition of charity in the public square, in a very short time we have witnessed the obliteration of honest dialogue and the suppression of an open display of ideas that past generations would have thought unimaginable. 

Sadly, many well-intentioned yet passive observers of the progressive campaign are drawn under the spell of the agitators’ emotive and passionate pleas for solidarity with the cause. These susceptible souls are entranced by the simplistic nature of the idea that the thorough deconstruction of “systemic injustice” will make room for historically victimized groups in an inherently unjust society. Those who ride the bandwagon—and the extremists who incent them—fail to recognize that while societal ills such as racism and environmental abuses exist, these are complex issues that are not easily addressed (much less remedied) by vitriolic attacks against identified societal blemishes as “systemic racism” and “environmental injustice”—much less when they proclaim these to be immutable characteristics of the national patrimony. Rather than acknowledging complexity and nuance, the shallow analysis of such multifaceted topics reveals their proponents’ worldview to be based upon a utopian vision that has marked such failed twentieth-century social experiments as socialism, fascism, and the eugenics movement.

In contrast to the anger and acrimony of our times, Christians are called to manifest our faith by individual acts of charity and witness—not to the assent to wholesale systemic social transformation. In reflecting on what makes St. Philip Neri’s evangelism such an effective example for our day, we may reflect on his effervescent overabundance of joy, shared with those around him in an intensely personal way. Joy, as compared with happiness, comes from within—it is not dependent on the attainment of worldly pleasures or circumstances, but rather it is a manifestation of gratitude for God’s love for us and contentment in the present moment. Through his humorous and endearing interactions with Romans of all walks of life, Philip infused a missionary zeal into the hearts of those who came into relationship with him. He set out to win individual hearts for Christ, and in so doing he was a powerful instrument in reclaiming the soul of the Church during the Counter-Reformation. 

In reflecting on the joy of the Gospel that inspired St. Philip Neri’s denial of self, it is ironic that today, in a more materially advanced and opulent society than any that has come before it, the plagues of loneliness, depression, and rage devastate our families and communities. A yearning for relationship and belonging leads millions of souls down the path of error in search of angry false gods and utopian ideals in the hopes they will mend our fractured world. Millions more, overwhelmed by fear at the trajectory of the culture, allow their God-given gifts to be squandered when they are paralyzed with hopelessness at the storm clouds of depravity building around us. 

What would happen if, instead of cowering in our own anxieties about the state of the world, we drew upon the strength of our own personal conviction and united with other Christians—as did St. Philip Neri—to reflect the true joy of being called to life in the spirit of Christ? May the Lord, through the intercession of St. Philip Neri, make us witnesses of peace and joyfulness in the lives of the people we encounter each day of our earthly pilgrimage.

By

Dr. James O. Breen received his doctor of medicine degree from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia, and completed his internship and residency in Family Medicine at Brown University. He is a faculty physician in residency education and lives with his wife and two children in Fort Myers, Florida.

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