St Philip’s Patronage
In the Refectory recently, the Fathers finished reading “An Elephant in Rome” by Loyd Grossman, on the life and work of the sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It is a greatly entertaining tale of intrigue, feuding and politics all intertwined with the Catholic faith. The great Oratorian “and tastemaker of the Counter Reformation” Fr Virgilio Spada gets an honourable mention or two. The overriding theme, however, is that the wondrous beauty of Bernini’s works was only possible with the help of God and his patrons. Patrons in renaissance Europe had a very particular function. For the good of society, and the glory of the Church, for the inspiration of the masses, they took under their wing artists, poets, dramatists and musicians to help them create something beautiful — something beautiful for God. They coached them, the gave them financial support, and they spoke on their behalf to the great and the powerful. Yesterday we kept the feast of the patrocinium of St Philip — his patronage of our Oratory in this city. The feast marks the anniversary of the decree which established this House as an Oratory in its own right, independent from the Fathers in Birmingham. But by keeping it we are not just marking an anniversary alone, but marking something ongoing, and that is the spiritual patronage of our Holy Father St Philip of the Oratory here in Oxford. And of course when we think of the Oratory family, that patronage extends to all of those associated with it too.
For the Oratory Fathers, St Philip shows not just a model of priestly virtue and devotion to the Mass but also an exemplar of the gentle care of souls, each according to their own needs. And whilst very few of us will even measure up to the virtue of our Holy Father, he is a marvellous example and patron. The idea of the patronage of St Philip for all of us associated with the Oratory is a beautiful one. Just as the great patrons of the arts in his own day (of which he was one) coached their clients, gained for them the support they needed to excel in their art, and spoke on their behalf to the powerful, so he does for us. As they strove to create something beautiful for God under their patron’s watchful guidance, so St Philip guides us. For us Christians today, our art is the excellence in virtue to which we are called. The something beautiful for God that we are called to build is, of course that life of holiness and virtue which is our path to sainthood.
As our patron, St Philip acquires for us the graces we need to grow in strength. He is our guide and intercessor, speaking on our behalf to the Lord. He is still now a spiritual father, and all the qualities of gentleness and encouragement he showed in his life on earth are now perfected in heaven as he exercises them for his spiritual children here below. To paraphrase a lovely line in one of the hymns to him, St Philip asks not our all but takes whatever we spare him, leading us on from good to better
And so we should get to know him better. We should, as the prayer of Cardinal Baronius exhorts us, take him as a pilot of our lives, to steer our little ship away from sin and temptation and into the calm waters of holiness. May he bless this Congregation with many holy priests, to better serve the family of St Philip who come here. And may our Holy Father St Philip, powerful intercessor and friend, bring all of us who place ourselves under his patronage to that heavenly bliss which was the sole aim of his life.