January 2, 2024 // Perspective

Living the Joy like St. Philip Neri

It was just before Pentecost in 1544, and a young man named Philip was praying in the catacombs of the Church of St. Sebastian in Rome. As he immersed himself deeper and deeper into prayer, he experienced a mystical revelation that would change his life forever. There appeared to him a giant ball of fire, which came into his mouth and lodged into his heart – and both his life and his heart would never be the same.

From that moment on, Philip spent the rest of his life physically burning with the divine love of the Holy Spirit. His heart would throb so violently that as he would walk into a room, cups and plates on tables would shake, causing others to refer to him as the “human earthquake.” And at the end of his life on earth, doctors performed an autopsy on this extraordinary man to see what his heart physically looked like. What they found was no less astonishing than the man himself. They discovered that Philip’s heart had physically enlarged so much that it actually broke two ribs from the inside out.

St. Philip Neri was known as the “Second Apostle of Rome” for his extraordinary evangelical work in 16th-century Rome, and he went on to found the Oratory way of life, which brought secular priests together in common prayer. Perhaps, most notably, he is the patron saint of joy. He was well known to have had a remarkable sense of humor and great love for laughter.

Like Philip, I also had an experience of the Holy Spirit on the eve of Pentecost a couple years ago. No, I didn’t break any ribs, nor did I swallow a Holy Spirit fireball, but I was ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Philip, too, was a priest – and one who overflowed with the joy of the Gospel. So between his Pentecost experience and his exuberant joy, I have found Philip to be a kindred spirit and have entrusted my priesthood to his prayers and fatherly care.

A long time ago, my dad told me that there were two ways to go through life – happy or sad. He also said going through life happy – filled with joy – would be a lot easier. I tend to agree! Not to mention, it is much more fun!

In a time in our world when the levels of frustration and unhappiness tend to increase year by year, with deaths of despair (suicide, drug overdoses, and liver diseases) also mounting, I think St. Philip gives us an opportunity to reexamine the proposal of the Gospel as what it truly is – an invitation to the fullness of joy. After all, Jesus tells his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full” (Jn 15:4).

The difference between the mere pleasure offered by the world and the joy offered by the Gospel is rooted in relationship. St. Thomas Aquinas rightly points out that joy is the fruit of love, which results when a lover is with his beloved. In other words, it is the act of abiding in the presence of the Beloved that we can live the life of joy. Because our God is Emmanuel – God-with-us – and He has poured forth the Spirit of His love into our hearts (cf. Rom 5:5), we have the ability to live in the presence of God at all times. The result, of course, is that by abiding in the Divine Presence, we can also live a life filled with joy at all times – even while suffering the trials of our fallen human condition.

So, throughout the coming year, my goal with this column is to share with you the joys of life from abiding with Jesus. I will give you a glimpse into my own experience of abiding (more or less!) with Him – in parish life, in rectory living, and in the other day-to-day realities of priesthood here in our diocese. I also hope to share a few laughs with you along the way – in the spirit of St. Philip. Who knows, maybe the Holy Spirit will fill us with such joy and laughter that we, too, will end up with two cracked ribs!

Father Brian Isenbarger is Parochial Vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne.

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