Bishop Robert’s Sermon for St Philip’s Day
It’s good to be back at the Oratory and on such a special day as this! Since moving to Oxford over thirty years ago this church and community have been in my thoughts and prayers every day, and will continue to be so. I want to thank Fr Nicholas and the Fathers for inviting me today and for the friendship and support they have given me since my ordination as a bishop now seven years ago. This solemnity of St Philip is for me and probably for many of us redolent with so many memories. We think of past Fathers and remember past preachers, friends and guests. It is all part of what it is to be a spiritual follower of St Philip. Philip had a natural capacity for friendship — today is a family occasion. So let us enjoy being reunited today, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Now living far away from my community I am able to look at the life and work of St Philip and the Oratory from another angle and to appreciate it with a fresh vision. There are a number of characteristics of the spirituality of St Philip which to my mind are unique and valuable. The first is a love of home. The sense of place and rootedness were so important to St Philip and remain so for his sons. From the time St Philip went to Rome as a youth of 18 until his death at 79 he never left the Eternal City. That may seem like a pious story but it is one that has a spiritual reality. Philip became part of the fabric of Rome, everyone knew him, most loved him and all revered him as one whose heart was aflame with the love of God. We love our home and community too and work from here encouraging others to be saints in their own homes by our prayer, preaching and the administration of the sacraments. It is hard to minister in one place for life and unheard of in the diocesan clergy and most religious orders. Nonetheless the rootedness of St Philip and his sons is deeply appreciated and is a source of inspiration to many.
Secondly, even in the Church we live in a highly organise and focussed world where aims and results are all important. St Philip had no great pastoral strategy yet he attracted people to the Lord like iron to a magnet. His ministry was not worked out and organised: he simply did what needed to be done at the moment. This might be caring for sick and poor pilgrims to Rome or helping a poor family or a struggling student. He touched the hearts and lives of many, both rich and poor, by his humour and his infectious personal love of God. Probably St Philip’s most distinctive ministry was in the Confessional, where he would spend whole mornings reconciling sinners to God and the Church. This remains one of the distinctive works of our Congregation. Our own St John Henry said that Philip didn’t try to change the world by force but to go with its flow, taking what is good in the world and sanctify that. He didn’t impose himself on others but coaxed them to holiness, step by step. “Love is his bond he knows no other fetter”. Sometimes to be too organised means missing the point, of which St Philip reminds us, that at the heart of our religion is love, and that is something that cannot be measured or quantified.
Another important part of St Philip’s teaching, and one which he constantly sought to instil in his followers, was the virtue of humility. He constantly gave God the glory and not himself. He always said that his achievements were the Lord’s. He would say that the Oratory was founded by our Lady, not Philip. It is by their quiet and constant fidelity the sons of St Philip “love to be unknown” and work without fuss at the humdrum priestly tasks of the day. These may seem undramatic but in fact add up to a powerful contribution to the life of the Church in this great city and elsewhere. It was Mgr Ronald Knox who said that we don’t talk about individual fathers at the Oratory but the Fathers as a whole, and that is true and as St Philip would have it.
Philip teaches us that faith brings new life, a fresh vision and renewed hope to our lives because at the heart of our faith is our living relationship with Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is only in Christ that we find true peace and fulfilment. As in St Philip’s time, the Church needs a true spiritual renewal and St Philip offers us a way forward as a model for a new evangelisation: a cheerful positive mentality, open to dialogue, an awareness of the needs of humanity and also importantly a love for the beauty of holiness, which is expressed above all through the liturgy.
No homily on St Philip would be complete without a mention of Mary, the Mother of God and true founder of the Oratory. Let us place ourselves under her maternal care and the under the patronage of St Philip that they may pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.