Rome in the sixteenth century was an exciting but questionable place. Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was decorating the papal apartments with his frescos, and the walls of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica continued to rise relentlessly.
At the same time, Renaissance Rome was a cradle of scandal and corruption, with graft, simony, and personal immorality in notorious evidence among cardinals in the curia and even among the popes. The people of Rome were just as lax in their practice of the faith. Gradually things improved. Austere popes like Paul IV and Pius V strengthened the inquisition, created the index of forbidden books, and imposed severe penalties on anyone who veered from orthodoxy. And yet the individual who perhaps more than any other is responsible for reforming Rome, strengthening the faith of the people, and bringing about genuine spiritual renewal, is an Italian priest who is remembered not for his great learning, not for his rigorous asceticism, not even for his dedication to hard work, but for his smile, his cheerfulness and his joy. Noblemen, workers, caftsmen, and churchmen flocked to Filipo Neri because they saw in his gentle manner, his quick wit, and his warm humanity an image of the face of Christ. When people heard him say things like “it is easier to guide cheerful people in the spiritual life than those who are sad” and “if you want to be obeyed than don’t make commandments.” The last one is especially good for religious superiors to remember! People were drawn to his good sense, to his humor, and to his quiet joy. Because of Philip, Rome changed and he is today the patron saint of that city.
Where did Philip get his cheerfulness, his warmth, and his joy? I believe they flowed from his love of the Eucharist. Philip was devoted to Christ present in the Eucharist, and would often be in ecstasy while celebrating the sacraments. His server would become so exasperated during these mystical experiences that could last two hours or more, that he would leave the saint alone at the altar until he returned to his senses. But in this celebration of the Eucharist, Philip attained his heart’s desire. Because his whole life was directed to Christ, when he would achieve communion with Him in the Eucharist, how could he not experience spiritual contentment, peace, and joy? I cannot help but think that Philip Neri would be baffled and amazed by our occasional flashes of anger, jealousy, and greed. He would no doubt ask, how can we be sullen, quarrelsome, or bad-tempered, when everything that we could possibly hope for has been given to us in the person of God’s very Son and our own Lord and Savior. How do we not live with overflowing kindness, abundant hope, and extravagant joy?
I can only think that at times we forget the gift that we have been given, a gift that Bartimaeus the blind man was so keenly aware of. He knew what he wanted and he asked for it. As we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord today, may we likewise ask to see. May we ask to see Jesus truly present in the sacrament. And in seeing him, may our own joy touch others with the love of Christ as cheerfully and as warmly as Philip’s moved the people of sixteenth century Rome.