At one point during my time in the seminary I returned to my room from class to find the entrance to my room “turned upside down.” The various pictures that were pasted to my door had been flipped over, and even the floor mat had been stuck to the ceiling. Such antics are not uncommon in seminary communities, and when done in good spirits they contribute to the building up of fraternity among seminarians and, in the future, among priests.
If there were to be a patron saint of practical jokes, it would have to be Saint Philip Neri. Born in 1515 in Florence, even from his youngest days he exemplified his characteristic spontaneity. There is a story from his youth that ends with him on the floor of a cellar, underneath a donkey and a pile of fruit! Later, recognizing an invitation to give his life totally to God, he abandoned worldly success, moved to Rome, and founded the Oratory, a gathering of young men dedicated to growth in holiness.
Humility was the keystone virtue of the Oratory, and Philip devised very clever ways to foster it. Once, when one of the young men asked permission to wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission under the condition that the hair shirt be worn on the outside of his clothes. Instead of physical mortification, he experienced the mockery of those who called him names because of his odd appearance. On another occasion, after a priest gave an eloquent sermon, Philip commanded him to preach it again six times in a row so that people would think it was the only sermon he knew how to preach.
Philip’s creativity permeated his life. He believed firmly that it wasn’t enough to tell people what they shouldn’t do. He recognized the need to give something to do in its place. So, when Carnival time came around, a time of great intemperance in Rome, Philip organized a pilgrimage and a picnic, accompanied by instrumental music. The twelve-mile hike tired out everyone to the point that they were too exhausted to have any interest in the Carnival. Philip’s life on earth came to an end at the age of eighty, after a long illness.
We Christians, and especially we priests, must always keep Philip’s wise advice before us: it is not enough to tell people what not to do; we must inspire them to something higher. The Church must be firm and clear about what is contrary to the will of God. But this is not the whole of her mission. She must also draw people to what is true, good, and beautiful. Certainly, Pope Saint John Paul II followed this model in his Theology of the Body. In his teaching, he laid out the profound plan of God for man and woman, created bodily in the divine image. Perhaps the most obvious example is the way in which he explained the Church’s rejection of contraception as a legitimate means for avoiding pregnancy. On the surface, it would appear that the Church is simply saying no to something, but Pope Saint John Paul II points out that, as with every no, this no is rooted in an even greater yes. In this case, the greater yes is the gift of self: “Man is person precisely because he is master of himself and has dominion over himself. Indeed, inasmuch as he is master over himself he can ‘give himself’ to another. And it is this dimension – the dimension of the freedom of the gift – that becomes essential and decisive for the ‘language of the body’ in which man and woman express themselves reciprocally in conjugal union” (TOB 123:5). The Church says no to contraception because she says yes to the complete gift of self spouses make in the sacrament of marriage.
These two holy men – Saint Philip and Pope Saint John Paul II – exemplify what each of us should strive for in our preaching from the pulpit and our counsel in the confessional. We should strive to instill in those entrusted to our care not just an understanding of what is evil, but a deep desire to know and to do what is good. The Theology of the Body is an invaluable resource, a treasury of wisdom that helps us understand how to present the “hard teachings” of the Church in a way that will help our people to embrace them fully.
Saint Philip also teaches us that God can and will use any gift he has given us for His purposes. Philip was immensely creative and had a great sense of humor. When he handed even these natural attributes over to God, they became the means by which many were drawn to faith. May we never reject any of our natural gifts but place them all in the hands of the Giver, trusting that He will use them as He sees fit for His glory and for the salvation of souls.
Father David Skillman is a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He serves as the pastor of St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. Father Skillman is a Certification student with TOBI and has attended numerous courses. You can access audios of Father Skillman’s homilies through: http://frskillman.podbean.com/