Today was the feast of St. Philip Neri, the "patron saint of joy" and founder of the Oratory. Since I belong to the Brooklyn Oratory, I usually mark his feast, but this year was something special; last month, I visited the dear fellow at Chiesa Nuova, his last home in Rome, the city he served humbly until his death at age 80. Here he is levitating. (I like the guys in the doorway: They're like, Whoa! Do Not Disturb!)
Next to seeing the Holy Shroud in Turin, going to Chiesa Nuova was the biggest thrill of my geeky Roamin' Catholic trip. The church, a splendid Baroque affair called St. Maria in Vallicella, began construction around 1575. Urchins chased a soccer ball on the piazza in front, as they probably have done for a very long time.
I think I now "get" the point of Baroque: to make your jaw drop at its sheer fabulousness and thus, believe in the possibility of divine fabulousness. Apparently St. Philip wanted plain whitewashed walls, but wealthy patrons kept piling stuff on. My favorite: this Visitation by Federico Barocci, capturing the intimate shared delight (and slight apprehension) of two unlikely expectant moms.
Golden angels clamber over the organ pipes.
Beneath them, one enters the gorgeous little side chapel of St. Philip. And I mean...Philip himself. He's in that glass box under the altar (below).
As I joined a few other souls for Mass, I tried to focus on anything--the mosaic over the altar, the bits of liturgy I could follow in Italian, anything but the fact that one of my favorite saints, dead for 400 years, was lying a few feet away, in what looked like a giant aquarium, or ant farm. I had seen ant-farm saints in Brazil, and would see several more in Italy, but this was different; I feel as if I know St. Philip personally.
After Mass, an Oratorian priest led some of us on a tour of St. Philip's rooms. I caught little of his Italian commentary, but it sounded as if this stand-up Philip was used to convince people that he was omnipresent at the Oratory's famous picnics throughout Rome. It has a very Terry Gilliam vibe; I resisted the urge to have someone snap my picture next to it like those cardboard-candidate photo ops.
The most touching artifacts were Philip's well-worn confessional (he was a legendary confessor and reader of troubled hearts), his battered shoes, a few thin cushions, and a warming box for hands and feet (it was drafty there even in April). I hope Philip's heart, aflame and enlarged with the Spirit, kept him warm; he is sometimes depicted with his collar open to cool off.
None of this seemed the least bit creepy, not even the saint's death mask. (A little goofy, maybe, but Philip was a joker; he chose mirth over pride and solemnity.) Before leaving Chiesa Nuova, I edged back up to his tomb and stared inside at the elegantly masked and vested body. His feet, shod in velvet slippers, pointed heavenward after their long years of pounding the Roman pavement seeking souls to save. And I felt a stirring breath of consolation regarding old Death himself. Not only did Philip seem deeply at peace within his glass casket, but after four centuries, he remains so vibrantly alive in our Oratory community that his frail remains seemed like an elaborately decorated afterthought.
Philip used to say, "Melancholy, flee from my house!" I left Chiesa Nuova smiling as a light rain began to fall.