Sermon given by The Rev. Msgr. Ronald A. Knox

Preached at the London Oratory on the Feast of
St Philip Neri, 26 May 1951

If salt loses its taste, what is there left to give taste to it? – Matthew 5:13

Last Wednesday was a centenary; unmarked by the world, but in the world’s history, if we could read the world’s history from the inside, one of high significance. On 23 May 1555, Giovanni Lunelli, Bishop of Sebaste, conferred the sacred order of the priesthood on a young Florentine living in Rome, whose name was Philip Neri. To you, Reverend Fathers, to you, his own parishioners, the fame of him stands in little need of commendation. And we, who have come from a distance to share your happiness, attest by our very presence the fact that he is still, as he ever was, a magnet to attract souls. Let us be content to say only a little about graces so abundant, about a personality so many-sided as his; to concentrate our attention upon one facet of his heavenly crown as it shines in human memory. He is the saint of freedom.

When I say that, I am not thinking of political liberty, and the world-problems which exercise us today. Yet it is perhaps worthwhile to remember that his later boyhood was spent in Florence, just when Florence had driven out the Medici family, and was making its last, vain bid for self-government. If we find him something of an original, somewhat unrepresentative of the age he lived in, let us remember that for him the splendors of the Renaissance were only the trappings of tyranny. Such a man, even on his human side, is a little contemptuous of those worldly estimates, those fashionable conventions, which we others take for granted. He had, perhaps, the makings of a rebel in him. But the thing he stood for and stands for has nothing whatever to do with political considerations; it is something subtler, more intimate, more delicately balanced. It is what devotional authors have called the liberty of the spirit.

If he was not a rebel, Philip was nevertheless a reformer. So were all the saints of his age. The sixteenth century was such a crisis in the history of religion that you could not be sensitized to its atmosphere without becoming either a rebel or a reformer, or both at once. And because Rome was, then as always, the capital of our fortunes, the cleaning-up process must needs begin at Rome. Even in the Middle Ages, they told the cynical story of a Jew who had been converted to Rome, and explained, in answer to his questioners, that the Catholic religion must be true if it could survive so much of corruption in high places as this. And the Renaissance, that splendid rediscovery of the classical tradition, that splendid flowering of scholarship and of the arts, only served to debase the lives and the thoughts of many among those who were influenced by it. A city that is built on a mountain-top, our Lord warns us, cannot be hidden; and it is in the same context that he uses the words of my text, “If salt loses its taste, what is there left to give taste to it?” Salt of the earth, it was for Rome to save the world from corruption; when Rome itself was corrupt, what was to be done with it? That was the problem which faced the saints of the Counter-Reformation, and St Philip in particular.

I say, St Philip in particular, because God raised him up to be, in a special sense, the Apostle of Rome. All the great founders of religious institutes have made their way to Rome, as St Ignatius did, because it would give them the necessary leverage for doing good in other parts of Christendom. St Philip made no calculations of that kind; he made no calculations of any kind. He drifted to Rome because that was God’s will for him; and he set about spreading abroad the love of God there, not because he thought it was a very wicked place; he would have done the same anywhere else. Only, that was just what was wanted. When a fire is in danger of going out, you will do no good aiming your bellows now at this point, now at that, blowing furious blasts at the struggling flames which only need that to extinguish them. No, you must find out first of all, by a series of experiments, which is the real focus which responds to your efforts, and then keep on fanning that one spot, always the same spot quite gently, quite patiently, till the fires spreads all round. Rome is the heart and focus of Christendom; and Philip could not have done better service to his Master than by fanning the dull embers that seemed so unresponsive, there in Rome.

But it would be grossly unhistorical to suggest that his was a lonely protest. On the contrary, he lived under a series of reforming popes; he was the contemporary and the friend of St Charles Borromeo, who did more than any other man to restore Church discipline in accordance with the canons of Trent. Everywhere bishops were being told to put their sees in order; the luxury of the Papal court was being repressed, the Holy Office was bringing to light those strange aberrations of doctrine which an age of restless intellectual activity had allowed to creep in. Meanwhile, St Ignatius and his companions were holding up to the world an incomparable example of organization and discipline. What need, we are tempted to ask, for a Philip as well?

I have tried to suggest the answer when I spoke of St Philip as the saint of freedom. Reforms brought in from above may change the habits of society without changing its heart. You may repress luxury without repressing the love of luxury; you may drive paganism into the catacombs, but it is paganism still. Organization and discipline, the multiplying of rules and methods whether for clergy or laity, produce little effect unless they are freely accepted by the will; they develop scruples in the timorous, command but a lifeless acquiescence from the indifferent. All the salutary reforms which the Council of Trent initiated might have succeeded in their measure, and yet left us with a dull, flat, uninspired level of performance. That they produce more than that, we owe in great part to St Philip. It was the sharp tang of his unwonted spirituality that acted as seasoning to the Tridentine experiment. The little world of Rome, from cardinals in curia to loungers in the street, felt his influence, and came hurrying back to God.

 But it was an influence freely exercised, and one which made for freedom. And, partly because it was an influence of freedom, not depending on regulations or formulas, it remains the same influence today, reasserted in his children. Wherever the Congregation of the Oratory flourishes, there you will find an atmosphere that breathes liberty; an atmosphere which is at once spacious, and completely natural, and intensely personal.

Spacious – St Philip, I think, liked space; liked to say his prayers on the roof, liked to go out for a walk in the country round Rome, with a party picked up anyhow, that attached itself to him at the last moment, without any plan, visiting a church here and there when the mood took him. It was characteristic of him that when they built the Chiesa Nuova he should have kept on altering the architect’s plan so as to make a wider nave for our Lady’s church; “More elbow-room”, he seems to say; “don’t let us make anybody feel cramped.” And wherever the Oratorians go they build large; a big church, a roomy house next door; not out of ostentation, but so as to get the sense of freedom. You shall be able to wander about in their churches, and say your prayers in this chapel or that as the mood takes you, without attracting attention. And this largeness is only the symbol of something more interior and more intimate; you are to come to God at your ease, not cramped by any system or method, your heart, like the saint’s own heart, enlarged.

Natural – of all the saints, none is so full of nature as St Philip; that is why he shocks some people, that is why he attracted Goethe. He remained, all his life, very much of a schoolboy; loved to make himself look ridiculous by pulling the beard of the beadle in church, loved to make his fashionable penitents look ridiculous by carrying his cat through the streets. How much was it a calculated effect? Did he sometimes go out of his way to play the fool, force himself to be natural? It is hard to say; but, whatever the secret of it, he was always himself; never for a moment were you tempted to say “There goes Ignatius”, or “There goes Charles Borromeo”. And he wanted all his disciples to be themselves, once they had overcome that razionale, that spirit of pride, which is the enemy of all holiness. He would not mould them into a type; they should live by a tradition, not by a rule. In this, as Newman wisely saw, his spirit accommodated itself to the English genius. I have been privileged to know many Oratorians, but never one of whom I felt inclined to say, “He is typical”.

And – personal; with the saint himself, that is a point hardly worth proving. His apostolate was neither of the pen nor, chiefly at any rate, of the pulpit; if you came under his influence, it was because he plucked you by the sleeve, folded you to his heart. And he was always there; as well expect to find Ars without St John Vianney, as Rome without St Philip. In this, above all, he has bequeathed his own spirit to his children. The sons of St Ignatius are ready to be sent off, at a moment’s notice, on some perilous mission; the sons of St Philip, called to a different form of self-sacrifice, are always at home. Nor is their love of room like the Benedictine’s love of his cell; the Benedictine’s abbey is his fortress, the Oratorian’s house is an open town, where all the world may pass through. He gives you that freedom which of all others is today most lacking: freedom of access.

Reverend Fathers, you do not keep St Philip to yourselves; you share him with the world. Pray for us others, that we too may learn something of his spirit.