Vessel of the Holy Spirit
This year the novena in preparation for the feast of Our Holy Father St Philip corresponds almost exactly with the novena of novenas, the first novena, the nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost when we wait once more with the Apostles for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And this is most appropriate, as St Philip was, more than anything else, a man of the Spirit — as we say in his litany, he is the “vessel of the Holy Spirit”. The story of his life, which we read during the novena, really begins with his singular experience of the Spirit on the Vigil of Pentecost 1544 in the catacomb of St Sebastian when the Spirit descended like a ball of fire, entering his mouth and then into his heart. After that experience — Philip’s own Pentecost — his life would never be the same again.
Behind his holiness of life, and his preaching, and his miracles, and his founding of our Institute, there is something fundamental we can learn from St Philip — conveniently for this time in the Church’s liturgical calendar, something about the Holy Spirit. St Philip’s life shows us what happens when we do not simply possess the Holy Spirit, but allow ourselves to be possessed by him. We all have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us — all of us who have been baptised and confirmed. He is in us as much as he was in St Philip Neri, as much as he was in the Apostles at Pentecost. But we are very good at closing ourselves to the Spirit — we, through our sins and our selfishness, our attachments and our self-will, block him out; we ignore his prompting and are deaf to his call, we partition him away into a little forgotten compartment in our souls. Or we make of him a very petty little thing indeed, our God — a God who always agrees with what we say, who wants us to do precisely what we want to do, and makes me right and everyone else wrong.
But this is not the Holy Spirit whom we worship; this is not the awesome power of Almighty God, who hovered over the waters at creation, who raised Jesus from the dead, who came down on the Apostles and Our Lady in the Upper Room, who wonderfully penetrated the heart of St Philip, and who gives power and authority to the Church. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills; his ways are not always our ways; and if we give ourselves to him and allow him to possess us completely — as St Philip did — then we will find that he will do more for us than we ask or even imagine; do more through us and with us. St Philip wanted to be a layman — the Spirit called him to the priesthood; he wanted to be a martyr, the Spirit made him a martyr not of blood, but of charity; Philip wanted to preach the Gospel to the pagans in the Indies, the Holy Spirit had other plans. He wanted to be a humble, hidden servant of the Church, living at San Girolamo and doing what good he could, but the Spirit gave him the gift of preaching and teaching and working miracles and reading men’s hearts and winning souls, and brought him to the Vallicella, and through him founded the Congregation of the Oratory, spread, as it now is, across the world. St Philip loved to be unknown — the Holy Spirit moulded and fashioned and transformed him into one of the most popular saints, the Apostle of Rome. St Philip wanted to reform the hearts and souls of those men and women he met — the Spirit used him to reform the very heart of the Church herself.
It is not enough to have the Holy Spirit — it is not enough even to think we are serving God or doing great things in his honour. We must allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, formed and transformed by the Spirit. We must be prepared to give up our own desires and plans — even the good ones — and be taken over by the Holy Spirit to be used for his own purposes. If we do this, if we open up to the Spirit who dwells in our hearts, then the life of St Philip Neri, and indeed of all the saints, shows us that the Spirit will do great things for, in, and through us. St Philip, Vessel of the Holy Spirit and Sweetest of Fathers. Pray for us.
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