In this year of pestilence, I am reminded that St. Philip Neri began his good works in Rome by, among things, tending to the sick. The hospitals of sixteenth-century Italy were houses of profound mortification and little hope, not much more than palaces of death. They were chronically understaffed and overwhelmed with the indigent and the ill, who rarely recovered. The conditions were extremely unsanitary: the beds were filthy, the air putrid, the din of agony unremitting. Into these seething crowds of the desperate came St. Philip. He assisted the sick as best he could. His first biographer reports that, once he began to gather a following of disciples,
It was Philip’s custom on weekdays to divide his children in Christ into three or four groups and send them to the city hospitals. To begin with, he would himself go after dinner [lunch – RTY] to visit the sick in hospitals, to enkindle by his example in his followers a great desire to do this work; he would speak to the patients, tend them and do all sorts of things for them, which encouraged in his disciples an ardent desire to do the same. One example will serve to show you how devoted they were to the sick. Giovan Battista Salviati, being very dedicated, was in the hospital called the Consolazione, and headed straight for a patient intending to make his bed, asking him politely to get up so that he could do so. The patient thought he was being mocked. “No, my Lord,” he said, “don’t make fun of me, I’m a poor man.” He knew all about Giovan Battista’s licentious way of life, but was unaware of his marvellous change of character, by which he had wholeheartedly turned away from material concerns to the love of heaven. But what next? Giovan Battista urged him most earnestly, and the sick man was struck not only by his air of authority but even more so by his humility, and got out of bed, lost in admiration. Giovan Battista retained that style of life with an unwavering intent until the day of his death, and having once put his hand to the plough, he never looked behind him.Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri
Trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram Cong.Orat.
St. Philip inspired others to help the sick in whatever way the could manage. These works of mercy were the fruit of the genuine conversion he wrought in their hearts by that peculiar influence he possessed. The palpable indwelling of the Holy Ghost in his heart turned him into a living fountain of graces whose streams brought miracles to many souls. Some of these miracles healed the sick and even raised the dead. Yet we must never forget that it was not these extraordinary moments but, rather, the graces of repentance, of conversion, and of final perseverance that were truly the greatest fruits of St. Philip’s particular sanctity. St. Philip’s true fame rests in those whom he carried with him to Heaven, not in the strange and marvelous works that he effected while on earth. The story of Giovan Battista Salviati is one example among many of those who tasted of such sweet fruits. He actualized the grace of his conversion through works of charity towards the sick.
Subsequent writers have retained this act as a sine qua non of the Oratorian life, and then only because St. Philip so clearly demonstrates how essential it is to the Christian life per se.
And it seems to me that on this, St. Philip’s feast day, we would be well-advised to do the same. We find ourselves in the midst of a new and terrifying pandemic. Death is everywhere. In the United States alone we have lost 100,000 souls with almost no public mourning. Many of these people have died alone, afraid, in pain, and deprived of the comfort of God’s Church. The nature of the disease means that most of us cannot actively assist in the hospitals for fear of transmission. All we can do is show kindness to our neighbors, help each other obtain the necessary supplies to stop the spread of the disease, and give blood if we have survived the sickness ourselves. That’s as far as practical action goes for most of us. So much for the corporal works of mercy.
But a Christian is never without a way to directly help his brethren. The first and last resort of the faithful must be prayer. Here, too, we can take St. Philip as our model. Lest we place too much emphasis on St. Philip’s merely material acts in visiting the sick, let us turn to the testimony of Giuseppe Crispino,
When we enter a sick-chamber, let us imitate the holy Father Philip, who was accustomed, immediately upon his arrival, to pray for the patients in their own room and to make the bystanders do the same, especially in the case of the dying. The Saint was also accustomed to retire into another room, and there to pray for the sufferer.Giuseppe Crispino, The School of Saint Philip Neri, pg. 174
Trans. Frederick William Faber
As I have written elsewhere, we must offer intercession for our suffering fellows now more than ever. And we must do so in union with the whole communion of saints. Indeed, one small blessing of this crisis is that it can, if we let it, draw us closer to the “great cloud of witnesses” ever ready to help us. One of St. Philip’s spiritual sons, Fr. Agostino Manni, made special prayers to the Blessed Virgin whenever he went to the hospitals; the Blessed Juvenal Ancina likewise sought the prayers of the living when he ministered to the sick (Crispino 174-76). And that most perfectly Philippine of English Oratorians, Fr. Faber, conceives of intercession for the dying as an intrinsically Marian act. He tells us that
We learn [a lesson] from Mary about the deaths of others. It is, that devotion for those in their last agony is a Mary-like devotion, and most acceptable to her Immaculate Heart. There is not a moment of day or night in which that dread pomp of dying is not going on. There are persons like ourselves, or better than ourselves, and whose friends have with reason loved them more than ever ours have loved us, who are now straitened in their agony, and whose eternal sight of God is trembling anxiously in the balance. Can any appeal to our charity be more piteously eloquent than this?…Are not the dying our brothers and our sisters in the sweet motherhood of Mary? The family is concerned. We must not coldly absent ourselves. We must assist in spirit at every death that is died in the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians. For they, too, are our brothers and sisters; they have souls; they have eternities at stake; Mary has an interest in them…How much more must they need prayers, who have no sacraments!…How much more earnest must be the prayers, when not ordinary grace, but a miracle of grace, must be impetrated for them!Fr. Frederick William Faber, The Foot of the Cross
I cannot help but hear a ringing call to intercession for our own times in these words of Fr. Faber. A greater and more fearsome calamity of general death demands a greater and more dedicated oblation of prayer. Especially when even our brethren in the Faith are so often deprived of the Sacraments that should be their final stay and consolation. Yet the power of God to furnish extraordinary grace is far mightier than any earthly sickness. Healing, protection, mercy, conversion, and consolation: let us boldly ask for these gifts on behalf of the ill, the dying, the dead, their caregivers, and their families…while we still can. The hour is late. Tomorrow we may be struck ill with the dread and deadly pestilence. And then, our every thought diverted, our breath failing, our bodies plunged into the depths of a fatigue from which we shall never rise again, we will be grateful for those pious souls who lift us up to the face of the Father in prayer.
So let us pray while we still can. If we do this in a spirit of charity, we will become true Sons and Daughters of St. Philip and more perfectly emulate the Divine Physician who desires to heal us in soul as well as in body.
May St. Philip Neri pray for us all in this troubled time.