When St Philip died in 1595, all of his possessions were lovingly preserved at the Roman Oratory. To this day, if you manage to fight your way past the ferocious sacristan at the Chiesa Nuova, you can see them displayed in the rooms where St Philip lived. Amongst these relics there is an intriguing object that connects St Philip with England. It is an alabaster relief, sculpted in Nottingham in the late Middle Ages, depicting the severed head of St John the Baptist. A faded label describes the dramatic circumstances by which it came to Rome. It was discovered on 7th October in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, in the cabin of a Turkish sea captain.
The man who rescued that image of the Baptist was a Knight of Malta whose name was Ricci. He brought his booty back with him to Rome, intending to present it to Pope St Pius V as a trophy. But on his way he called in on St Philip, and as a result of that visit the poor Pope never received his gift. Instead, St Philip persuaded his friend to leave it with him, so that he could venerate it himself. Many years before, St John had actually appeared to St Philip while he was a young layman, in a vision that convinced him to spend the rest of his long life in Rome.
At first sight, St John and St Philip might not seem to have very much in common. The Baptist was a firebrand, with a formidable line in insults. When the religious hierarchy of his day came to see him baptizing he called them a “brood of vipers” to their faces. St Philip, by contrast, was always a model of meekness and respect before his religious superiors, even though the ecclesiastical culture of Rome when he began his apostolate was a byword for decadence. While there were hellfire and brimstone preachers who stood on the street corners decrying the depravities of the papal court, St Philip’s way was quite different. He was more like a fly-fisherman, who patiently caught souls one by one and reeled them in quite gently to the harbour of salvation. In the process he converted many prelates and cardinals to the way of holiness.
On the surface, then, St John the Baptist and St Philip might look like chalk and cheese. But on a deeper interior level, there is a very strong bond that unites them. When St John is assuring his own disciples that he is not the Christ, but is rather the one who has been sent to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, he explains to them: “The friend of the bridegroom, who waits and listens for him, is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn3:29-30).
In those words of St John, we recognize an intense joy and profound humility, and there is a clue to how humility and joy are intimately connected. St John is really the proto-Apostle of Christian joy. He leapt for joy in the womb when the Blessed Virgin, who was carrying Our Saviour in her own womb, visited his mother Elisabeth. Saint Philip Neri, meanwhile, is known the world over as the “Apostle of Joy”. And the Oratory that crystallized around St Philip in his rooms in Rome was a perfect school of Christian humility.
Those of us who take ourselves too seriously would be at risk if St Philip were to appear amongst us now. We would be at serious risk of being teased and made to look silly. St Philip had a perfect horror of self-aggrandisement. When he detected that a senior officer in the Swiss Guard was looking quite pleased with himself in his magnificent uniform during a papal ceremony, St Philip ran up to him in front of everybody and pulled on his beard. When a talented new priest in the Oratory preached brilliantly the first time he went into the pulpit, St Philip ordered him to preach the exact same sermon word for word every Sunday until further notice. As a result, the congregation would groan whenever he appeared and say to each other: “Here comes the father with only one sermon.”
At his death, St Philip’s friends complained that they had no honour left – their spiritual father had taken it all from them. But he always made sure that he was the first victim of his own irony. When a delegation of Polish dignitaries who had been sent by the Pope arrived at the Oratory in the hope of finding a living saint, they discovered St Philip having frivolous pamphlets read aloud to him in the sacristy, and he boasted that it was his spiritual reading.
There was an effervescent sense of fun and spontaneity in all of this. But it also had a serious purpose: “Always humble yourself and abase yourself in your own eyes and in the eyes of others” St Philip would say, “so that you can become great in God’s eyes.” In other words, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” That saying of St John the Baptist could have been engraved on St Philip’s heart. For Philip, humility was a prerequisite for human flourishing. He could not resist deflating pompous people, and this was because he wished to liberate them from the shackles of self-delusion so that they would be free to share in the joy of divine friendship that was the mainstay of his own life.
He must increase, and I must decrease. Those words sum up what Christian humility is all about. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that the word “humility” comes from the Latin humus, for earth. And if we look in Genesis, we shall see that God made Adam out of the dust of the earth. So to be humble is nothing more and nothing less than to live in reality. It is to acknowledge that we come from nothing, and all that we have is gift. Read a little further in Genesis, however, and we shall see how the gifts keep coming. It was God Himself who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s face. Read the Scriptures more thoroughly and we shall see that God also intends for us a Divine Likeness, which means ennoblement and a participation in His Own Life.
This means that there is nothing degrading about Christian humility. Rather it is the indispensible foundation for all of the great blessings that God wishes to build in our lives. Humility is the beginning of genuine self-awareness and of human greatness.
Most of us, at some stage in life, will be afflicted by a nagging sense of our own inadequacy – we certainly should be, unless we are monsters of self-satisfaction. The way that fallen human nature tends to deal with this is through pride. The proud man exalts himself in the hope that it will provide him with a sense of worth and inner peace. It never does. Even the pagan Greek playwrights knew that hubris was the precursor of tragedy.
Humility liberates us from the insatiable appetite for honours and recognition. If we decrease, by placing Our Lord at the centre of our lives, and by honouring our neighbour over ourself, then the Life of Christ will increase within us to overflowing, just as it overflowed in St Philip, and in St John the Baptist.
May we decrease, so that the Life of Our Saviour is able to increase within us. And through the intercession of St Philip and St John the Baptist, may our joy be full in this life and, more importantly, in eternity.