My wife and I have always been fascinated by St. Padre Pio. So much so, that we wanted to name our second boy after him. But there was a problem. Given our throughly non-Italian bloodlines, I just didn’t think we could pull off naming a kid “Pio.” For months my wife and I tossed around other names but nothing was clicking.
Until it did.
Driving around town one day it occurred to me that if we named our son Philip Ignatius Ostrom, his initials would be PIO! That counts, right? I had always joked about naming a boy Ignatius, and even have a couple in the family tree. But Philip, after St. Philip Neri, was a name that gently grew on me over time.
Admittedly, I knew little of St. Philip Neri’s life when I first started thinking of using his name. I was definitely interested in learning more about him, but let’s be honest, he was a means to an end. I needed a “P.” And this is exactly how I think St. Philip Neri would want it. Simply put, St. Philip Neri was a remarkably humble, gentle, and loving person who, like St. Padre Pio, could draw a crowd.
This Third Apostle of Rome counted towering figures such as St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Charles Borromeo as friends, alongside numerous laymen whose names are lost to history. He was considered a living saint in his day, and the poor as well as popes sought him out. Much has been written about this grace filled life, but what stands out to me most was his sense of mission.
He knew what he was about, and that was wholehearted devotion to Christ in service of neighbor.
In 1533, at 18 years old, he decided to go to Rome; he wanted to serve God more perfectly so he went to a city in physical and spiritual ruins. Sacked some 5 years prior, with thousands dead from violence and disease, and the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation in full swing, the people of Rome were cynical and the clergy lax. That was his mission field. And he went to work.
Spending the first few years almost like a hermit, fortifying himself with prayer and study, he then started ministering to the poor and sick. With a growing band of followers, he set about converting the city with his disarming humor and joy. He would go wherever people were gathered and start a dialogue that would inevitably end with him leading groups to minister to those in need nearby.
Amazingly, he ministered in this way as a layman for 18 years before becoming a priest, and he only took that step at the behest of his spiritual advisor.
Indeed, St. Philip Neri understood well the universal call to holiness and valued the influence and impact of laymen in evangelization. He shows us something else too; the joy that arises from Hope. That was the sense of his good humor, right? He had met the Father, and knew that He was faithful, trustworthy and loving.
As inspiring as it is to see a life like St. Philip’s, it can also be disheartening; some saint stories are just hard to relate to.
For instance, St. Philip once pushed his sister while they were reciting psalms, apparently his sole transgression. (For the record, my Philip once pushed a sibling, too—not his only transgression.) Yet St. Philip’s life also offers us hope for the good that God can work in a willing, dedicated soul. As daunting and overwhelming as his time and mission was, he never lost his joy.
We also live in daunting times, yet, regardless of how we are called to serve, we know that God offers us the grace to do it well. We may not have lived such graced filled lives from our youth, but God only asks us to trust Him and to start. As St. Philip was fond of saying, “Well, my brothers, when shall we begin to do good?”