HOMILY YORK ORATORY – SOLEMNITY OF St PHILIP
26th MAY 2023.
There is to my mind something very strange in sharing many aspects of one’s life on social media; it is a foreign world to me. However, I think there can be a right moment to mention personal details, even in a homily for very limited reasons.
So, I would like to begin by mentioning a small but important part of my life fifty-five years ago as a young seminarian. I was finding Church life in the late 1960s rather difficult to the point that I seriously wondered whether I was on the right path! In the providence of God, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory was giving the College’s summer week Retreat. I would have to say he was wonderful and I think like St Philip, he was able to kindly encourage and at the same time challenge, in order to help one see more clearly, what God was asking of one and how the Lord’s help is unfailing. Father Geoffrey Walmsley has long since gone to the Lord and I am sure he will be with St Philip now.
So, to the Fathers of the Oratory, I have a very great deal to be thankful for, after forty-nine years as a priest in the Diocese of Middlesbrough.
The theme of the retreat that I have just mentioned was very direct and I hope repeating this enables us to celebrate and honour St. Philip today, and will help us to live its timeless message and seek his powerful intercession as we tread our pilgrim way. The theme of that retreat was,
“The heart of true religion is a personal devotion to the person of Jesus Christ”.
Over these many years I have come to realise that this theme also introduces us to the real St Philip – The Apostle of Rome – indeed all I can say is that this retreat’s theme can help us not merely to understand St Philip but to be drawn into the vibrant warmth of his personality, which so many found endearing but also inspiring.
All of which brings me to that title he bears, which is on a moment’s reflection quite astonishing, the Apostle of Rome; in a few words we learn a very great deal about St Philip and also about Rome in the mid-sixteenth century. Clearly the title implies that St Philip had wonderful pastoral gifts, at the same time it also implies that the state of the Church in Rome in his day, left a great deal to be desired: all of which serves to remind us that holiness is not a geographical expression.
St Philip spent many years as a young man striving to understand, as our first reading has it what God wanted of him. He prayed and understanding was given him and through the gift of prayer as the sacred author tells us, in St Philip the gift of wisdom created the expansive heart of love which so marked his personality, his understanding and compassion. All of which drew countless men and women from every part of society to his threshold.
This was no vain personal popularity cult, nothing could be more foreign to St Philip because to recall the theme of the retreat his life was personal devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, which was authentic and real. He would have been able to see through the sadness of personal popularity cults in theChurch and would have done so at a glance, because his shrewdness and wisdom was the fruit of Divine Grace being embraced to the very depths of his being. It was this luminous relationship that embraced humanity which has often to be gently coaxed and not driven. Indeed, it is usually the former only which draws us into the presence of Christ in our lives.
Once we understand this about St Philip and recognize the truth of this description as fitting most if not all of us, in other words we all need to be encouraged and coaxed we can see how he did this not least of all in cultivating a sense of beauty in sacred art and music which cultivate the sublime. St Philip realised how through such gifts God can draw us closer to himself.
However, lest I mislead anyone, I am not talking about an aesthetic experience as an end in itself, St Philip would be appalled at such a notion. Indeed, it is not difficult to see why, as St Luke tells us in this Gospel the true servant of Christ is waiting upon the Master’s returns, that loving expectancy which is Christ centred and not self-centred.
Needless to say, we might well now wonder what did St Philip do that we can take home and make our own. Well, first of all we can think of what effect he had on others and how he learnt from others, an experience of life which I suspect is one of the reasons the Fathers of the Oratory share a common life.It is very easy to be a self-centred island, but it has little to do with Christian living. In other words remembering the effect we have on others and being open to learn from one another is a message which St Philip gives us which we can all take home together. Then we might think of the long hours of prayer which clearly transformed the type of man St Philip was, so we reflection how we pray for others and how often we praise and thank God for the gift of faith.
Whatever our answers, I hope and pray that today’s feast day of St Philip will stir us into thanking God for this remarkable man of compassion, humour, and faith. He was no stranger to the Risen Lord and his blessed Mother, whose prayers we ask for upon this Oratory and this parish in this great city of York.