Why we pray for the FAITHFUL departed

-Norman Rockwell
-Norman Rockwell

Last night at a parish dinner function an interesting question was raised.

Someone told a touching story of a priest who prayed grace after meals with a formula different from the usual.  He said that the priest, after years of maturing in his ministry had decided to pray, “May their souls and the souls of the unfaithful departed rest in peace.”  The explanation given was that we should pray for everyone, even our enemies.  People quietly nodded in general ascent, but their was a tingling in the back of my mind that something about this didn’t fit.  Without wishing to question the obviously good intentions of the priest in the story, I had to ask myself, “Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed.”  The answer lies in the Gospel, and in our understanding of life and death.  

St. John Paul the II reminds us that the body is the physical expression of the soul.  It’s the instrument given us by God to achieve good or evil according to our free will.  Virtue is only real when it is acted upon physically… and sin is an action that we do even though we know it to be wrong.

At our death the books – as it were – are closed, and the Lord judges us based on how we lived.  Those who live by faith in Christ will be saved.  That faith may be overt, as in the case of faithful Christians… or it may be implicit, as in the case of virtuous non-Christians who live well but have never had the opportunity to get to know the Christ of Divine Revelation.  Together these make up the “faithful” departed.  Some of them go directly to heaven; others need to endure a time of purging of sins and attachments to this world in a state we call “purgatory.”  Finally there are those who, in this life, chose to actively reject Christ.  Whether they were baptized or not is irrelevant in this case… both are equally capable of rejecting God.  Those who actively reject any relationship with him (explicit or implicit) can be in danger of living that way for eternity… and this we call hell.

Back to our question: Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed? and why not the unfaithful departed.  The faithful in heaven don’t need our prayers.  The faithful in purgatory can be sped on their way by our prayers and sacrifices joined to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.  For the unfaithful, no amount of prayer will suffice.  Jesus himself says as much in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) when he describes the words of Abraham, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

In the Divine Comedy, Dante tours Hell in the Inferno.  In Canto XX, he comments to his guide, Virgil, that he has pity for the souls.  Virgil is quick to correct the author, reminding him that the Justice of God is not something Dante should question.  This speaks to the moment at last night’s dinner, I think.  It’s to Dante’s credit that he has a heart not of stone but of flesh… a heart that can even feel for those suffering in hell.  Virgil is correct… the damned are so because of their own free choices… BUT (and this is just my personal gloss on the scene), it’s telling that the virtuous pagan (Virgil) is lacking in sympathy, while the Christian (Dante) cannot help but be moved with pity.  Nonetheless, the case remains: we pray for the “faithful” departed because that’s who we’re actually able to help by our prayers.

On the miracles of St. Philip

On this last day of our novena to St. Philip Neri we consider his miracles.

The miracles Christ performed through St. Philip were many, varied, and had a definite orientation.

Recorded throughout his life and reaffirmed during the investigations before his canonization, volumes could be filled with the tales of these amazing events.   Some were very ordinary, perhaps only a matter of circumstance, but a great many of them were bona fide, all out extraordinary miracles.  The number of miracles points toward fruitfulness.  Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).    Further, Christians are, by their baptism and Confirmation filled with the Holy Spirit.  A quintessential Italian, Philip taught his followers that la vita in abondanza was something to seek for each and every day… he did his part to witness to this by the number of his miracles.

The miracles of St. Philip were also varied.  They touched every dimension of Christian life; a reminder to us that God wants to know and love all parts of us!

Finally, the miracles of St. Philip had a definite orientation: toward heaven.  Like miracles (Gk. “semeia” – “signs”) in the Gospel, they were signs pointing us toward a greater reality.  This matched beautifully with two of Philip’s pastoral mottos, “e poi?” and “preferisco paradiso“.  The first means simply, “and then?”  It was Philip’s refrain to people who seemed contented with earthly life… a gentle reminder that something has to come after death.  The second phrase summed up his life, “I choose paradise.”  Philip’s extraordinary miracles, directed people back to the ordinary path to salvation: the sacraments, and thence to heaven.  We should likewise keep our eye on that divine goal.

St. Philip’s care for the salvation of souls

On this eighth day of our novena to St. Philip we meditate on his care for the salvation of souls.

The concept of care for the salvation of souls is something largely muted in the contemporary Church.  What does it mean to care for the salvation of souls?  The short version is this: Taking their cue from God himself, Catholics desire all people to one day be in heaven.  To that end, we exhort, teach, guide, assist others in living lives worthy of heaven.  BUT… as we all know people have free will and don’t always listen, even to the best of advice.  This is where  care for the salvation of souls really kicks in.  A person can offer sacrifice to God praying that the Lord break through to hearts that we have a hard time reaching on earth.  Sacrifice can also be offered to speed the journey of those in purgatory who are ‘working off’ their venial sins on the way to heaven.

Care for the salvation of souls springs from the reality that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to redeem us (cf. Jn 3:16).  Essentially, Christians are invited to imitate Christ in his own care for the salvation of souls, joining him on the Cross in the work of redemption.  Why would such a beautiful teaching be muted in today’s ordinary parish experience?  Well, the flip side of saving souls is that sometimes souls aren’t saved… a reality most people don’t like even to consider.  The anxiety is understandable, but doesn’t change the reality that hell exists and on can go there as a result of one’s earthly (in)actions.  A post-modern secular world that doesn’t believe in hell or the devil, has no reason to take up the salvation of souls as an issue… but St. Philip Neri certainly did!

Philip loved people… and he wanted all to experience the love of God that he himself had come to know.  Every thought of his was bent toward the love of God and salvation of souls.  His prayers, self-denials, humiliations, hardships… everything was ordered to the saving of souls.  He had a special place in his heart for young people and the maintenance of their purity.  Often he would invite them off the streets to play in what – today – we would call a safe environment.  When they made noise, disturbing the local religious houses/observances, Philip was chided by his neighbors.  His response says it all, “So long as they do not sin, they can chop wood on my back for all I care.”

Care for the salvation of souls is certainly not unique to St. Philip; all the saints had this same care.  I think particularly of St. John Vianney and St. Therese of Lisieux.  As we rely on their earthly example, now we can rely on their heavenly intercession to bring our souls back from the brink… and in this we rejoice.  Consider Newman’s prayer for today’s novena reflection:

“Philip, holy Patron, who was so careful for the souls of thy brethren, and especially, for thy own people, when on earth, slap not thy care of them now, when thou art in heaven.  Be with us who are thy children and thy clients; and with thy greater power with God, and with thy more intimate insight into our needs and our dangers, guide us along the path which leads to God.  Be to us a good father; make our priests beyond reproach or scandal; make our children obedient, our youth prudent and chaste, our heads of families wise and gentle, our old people cheerful and fervent, and build us up, by thy powerful intercession, in faith, hope, charity and all virtues.  Amen.”

on the Patience of St. Philip

On this seventh day of our novena we consider St. Philip’s patience.

Various authors link the virtue of patience with different parts of Philip’s life.  All of them are right in one way or another.

Faber writes about Philip’s handling of the daily crosses of life, social, spiritual, physical.

Capecelatro wrote of how he was grossly misunderstood by the Inquisition, which – for some time – feared that he was a crypto-protestant of some sort.  Nothing can hurt a priest more, the cardinal wrote, than to be called unfaithful by the very people who are supposed to be father figures and sources of delight to him. Nonetheless, Philip was both patient and obedient… and today he is venerated as a saint by the whole Church.

Newman focuses on how Philip was mocked by the Roman nobility, how he was a laughing stock in their palaces and suffered as his faith met their cynicism.  …This may be the closest to our experience of faith in DC’s daily life.  An excerpt from his prayer for patience may sum up today’s lesson well:

“Obtain for me the spirit of fortitude in all the adversities of life.  Ah, what need have I of the virtue of patience, since I am frightened at every little trouble, and grow weary under every slight affliction; since I am irritated and resentful under the least contradiction, and do not know that the way to paradise is a way of spiritual afflictions..”


on the Cheerfulness of St. Philip

May 22 – On the sixth day of our novena to St. Philip Neri, we consider one of his most attractive qualities, cheerfulness.  As usual, we’ll look at three aspects of this trait.

First – As with any virtue, cheerfulness/joy is not a matter of extremes.  It exists as the middle way between two vices, in this case despair and what Bacci calls, “buffoonery.”  Despair, we understand all too well.  Buffoonery is not so much an unrestrained cheerfulness as is is an irrational cheerfulness.  Imagine a group of middle school students on a sugar high late at night after a day at the amusement park… and you’ll be in the ballpark for understanding what buffoonery is.  Cheerfulness, on the other hand, is reasonable.  In the case of St. Philip, Bacci says, it was marked by a certain, “gravity,” or thoughtfulness.  This gives cheerfulness longevity and purity so that we need never be ashamed of it.

Corollary to this, St. Philip’s cheerfulness was an evangelical tool of his Love.  It was always sincere, but not always spontaneous.  Sometimes, we can be sure from his biographies, it was a chosen response to great sadness.  Philip often said that gloom is contrary to religion and to the Gospel.  If we want to spread the Gospel in city culture, we need, sometimes to choose cheerfulness even when we don’t necessarily feel it.  To this end, we might adopt a lesson from one of Philip’s favorite books, The Life of Blessed Giovanni Colombini by, Feo Belcari:

“It is my opinion that virtues are failing because we fail to speak enough of God, for I have seen an known that, as a natural consequence, the heart feels what the tongue utters; so he whose talk is of the world, grows lukewarm and worldly; he who speaks of Christ thinks of Christ.”

Because cheerfulness is a tool for evangelization, we should try to think of it as a gift to others… consequently, gloom may be thought of as a selfish indulgence.

Finally, the root of St. Philip’s cheerfulness was his constant faith that Divine Providence would bring him to heaven.  If we believe in Providence and do our small part to maintain a good life, we will reach our goal one day.  The more we think on that goal, the more our hearts cannot help but to leap with joy.

Bl. John Henry Newman’s Prayer for the Cheerfulness of St. Philip:

“Philip, my glorious advocate, who didst ever follow the precepts of the Apostle St. Paul in rejoicing always in all things, gain for me the grace of perfect resignation to God’s will, of indifference to matters of this world, and a constant sight of heaven; so that I ma never be disappointed at the Divine providences, never desponding, never sad, never fretful; that my countenance may always be cheerful, and my works kind and pleasant, as become ethos who, in whatever state of life they are, have the greatest of all goods, the favor of God and the prospect of eternal bliss.  Amen.”

May 21 – St. Philip’s Tenderness of Heart

On this fifth day of the novena to St. Philip, we meditate on his tenderness of heart.

Reviewing the thoughts of Bl. John Henry Newman, the three “juh’s” that may help us understand what it means to be tender of heart after the model of St. Philip.

First, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Justice – Justice is that virtue by which we are disposed to give each person his/her due.  The ultimate foundation for justice is our identity as children of God.  That identity means that we are due absolute dignity, we are due love.  Whenever Philip saw the lack of this, especially among the poor, the sick and imprisoned, his heart was moved with pity and he sprang to action.  What’s the difference – one might ask – between “justice” and “sympathy” in this case?  Justice brings an objectivity to sympathy… sometimes it moulds our sympathy to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Justice, in a sense, grounds sympathy in reality lest we get carried away to the point that no one benefits from our sympathy.

Second, Philip’s tenderness was marked by Generosity – When his cause for sainthood was being considered thousands of people came forward witnessing to Philip’s generosity.  During a famine he gave away a day’s worth of his own food to the poor and fasted.  When his own purse was empty he would assign penances to his wealthy penitents so that they would pay the dowries of poor girls who could not otherwise afford to marry or enter a convent.  When others received credit for good works that he himself had done, Philip rejoiced and reinforced the misperception to give glory to others rather than himself.  In these and a hundred other ways our saint imitated the generosity of God from whom all life flows generously.

Finally, Philip’s tenderness was Gentle – Philip’s preaching, his teaching and his general encounters were all in the context of his awe at the beauty of God and God’s Creation.  For as much ‘building up’ as he did Philip’s demeanor was more that of one walking in awe through a beautiful structure.  He was always humbled by the experience of being in the world ad this brought a gentleness and inspiration to even his most fervent preaching.


On the Purity of St. Philip

On this fourth day of the novena to St. Philip Neri we consider how he manifested the virtue of purity.

Let’s expand on three thoughts offered by Bl. John Henry Newman about this virtue in the life of our saint-of-the-city.  Also, consider checking out the “Exercises for Purity” Menu at the top of this page.

First – Philip’s purity began in childhood and was something he was very open about.  As a child, St. Philip was known as Pippo buono (“Phil the good”).   Research into Florence’s city records, diaries, and even criminal proceedings has shown that for all of the city’s medieval piety, it was a cosmopolitain place full of secular influences of every stripe, including temptations of the flesh.  Growing up in the streets of the metropolis, Philip was – like his neighbors – subject to all of this, but never victim to it.  From an early age he was taught to fear ever losing his relationship with the Lord (i.e. the virtue of “Fear of the Lord”).  He was also very open about his desire to remain close to God always.  As a result, he was known throughout the city as “The good”.  What can we learn from this?  For all of our day’s sexual license, polite society still speaks in hushed voices about things carnal. We also speak in all too hushed voices about fighting against such temptations.  Philip spoke openly about both ends of this equation and, consequently, equipped himself more effectively to handle it.  Strong Christian families and strong Christian friendships are great foundations for purity in city living.

Second – Philip’s purity was evangelical.  Biographers of his time describe St. Philip as beaming with purity.  They say that the virtue darted from his eyes, shone in his skin and even gave an odor of sanctity to his breath (no small feat in a time before toothpaste!).  Whether these are literal or figurative descriptions we can’t know, but we can listen to the testimony of those who were brought to conversion by Philip’s manifest purity.  He lived it so beautifully that others changed their lives as a result.  While many such stories were given by witnesses in his case for canonization, one famous one demonstrates the point.  Philip was once tricked by a jealous nobleman into rushing to a deathbed.  He was shocked to find the bed belonged to a brothel and that the people in it were certainly not dead.  As they attempted to stain him, Philip begged and pleaded with them describing how he would hate even for one moment to be distanced from God’s grace.  His pleading was so sincere that not only did they leave him alone, the were brought to confession!  The jealous noble so set on ruining the simple priest would one day become an important member of Philip’s circle of friends.  Purity is evangelical.

Finally – Philip’s purity was humble.  Two phrases froths life demonstrate the point: “In the battle for purity the victory goes to him who flees the field fastest.”  and “Lord do not trust me, if you do I shall surely betray you.”  Man is ill equipped to fight the devil; history teaches as much.  But… God is very good at it.  Flee to him in temptation and he will save you.

On St. Philip’s Prayer

5_26_Philip Neri 3

On this third day of the novena to St. Philip, Bl. John Henry Newman invites us to contemplate what it meant to Philip to pray.

Referencing Bacci’s biography of our saint, Newman mentions a number of dimensions to Philip’s prayer.  Three catch my eye.

First, where does prayer come from?  How do we get it started?  Philip often told his students, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you to pray.”  While humility and obedience can (and should) be harmonious experiences, we know that normally they’re challenging.  Trying our best to observe both virtues, will often lead to a VERY sincere prayer, “HELP!”  Don’t discount that… Indeed, it’s when we don’t ask for help… when we don’t acknowledge our smallness before the Father that we run into problems.  Overtime the person praying learns to explore the inner contours of this, “Help” prayer and so begins a deeper dialogue with the Lord leading to self-knowledge and knowledge of him.

Second, Philip was constantly at prayer.  “If he gave way to the habit of prayer in even the most trifling degree, he became lost in contemplation.” Bacci tells us.  That word, “habit,” is important for us to hold on to.  Just as vices are bad habits, virtues are good habits, and prayer among them.  There are special times for focused prayer; setting aside a holy hour, or attending a liturgy like mass or a penance service.  But there’s another kind of constant prayer that takes place throughout one’s day.  Little phrases thrown up to God.  We call these, “aspirations.”  And the more constant they become, the  more habitual, the happier we are.

Third, Philip’s prayer was deeply evangelical (i.e. “of the Holy Spirit”) and marked, in this, by two objectives.  First, He delighted to be in love with the third Person of the Trinity… which is beautiful in itself… But for our purposes his second objective is key: Philip constantly asked the Holy Spirit for gifts to do great works of healing, mercy, even miracles.  He taught his followers to do likewise and they went out producing great fruits for building up the Church.  The lesson – Ask… Ask constantly… and Ask BIG… if you do, great things can happen for new evangelization.

May 18 – St. Philip’s Devotion

On this second day of St. Philip’s Novena we consider the concept of devotion.

Devotion, from the Latin, de- (“of/concerning”) and votum (vow / promise / prayer) is a singular focusing of attention.  The attention is more than just a matter of referencing something… it’s a life-giving, life-affirming love.

The singularity of devotion is precisely what gives this concept its power.  When you has a devoted friend, spouse, family member… you feel ennobled… you feel a sense of singular worth because another human being has consciously chosen to privilege you with his/her attention and care.  In this devotion can lift both the soul of the giver and receiver to a new, Godly place.

Another side of devotion, another source of its potency is its communal nature.  Like so many things, devotion finds its origin in God himself.  Within the loving communion of the Holy Trinity, God the Father is singularly devoted to God the Son and vice-versa, the Love shared between them in their mutual devotion is so strong it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  The devoted Love of the Trinity overflows its own self as the Son is sent into the world to bring a devoted love to the human race.

It was into this Trinitarian sense of devotion that St. Philip was drawn.  In a miraculous event, Philip’s heart was set afire and enlarged by a special gift of the Holy Spirit… so great was his love of God.  In the celebration of the sacraments, he would often be overwhelmed by his desire for God and fall into ecstasies to the point that he often had to celebrate mass by himself to avoid creating a spectacle.  And in his constant search for the face of his beloved [Jesus], St. Philip’s love sped forth from him as he lavished care on all those who crossed his path.

Questions for Reflection

To whom, to what am I devoted?  What is the relationship between my earthly devotions and my devotion to God himself?  How do I feel, what happens to me when I perceive myself to be the object of someone’s devotion?


Philip, glorious patron, gain for me a portion of that gift which thou hadst so abundantly.  Alas! thy heart was burning with love; mine is all frozen towards God and alive only for created things.  I love the world, which can never make me happy; my highest desire is to be well off here below.  O my God, when shall I learn to love nothing else but Thee?  Gain for me, Philip, a pure love, a strong love, and an efficacious love, that, loving God here upon earth, I may enjoy the sight of Him together with thee and all the saints hereafter in heaven.  Amen.  -Bl. John Henry Newman