St. Philip Neri and the Cheerful Heart

Have you heard the one about the funny saint?

Talk about saints often focuses first on serious attributes: piety, for example, or a sense of selflessness.

While an extraordinarily pious man, Saint Philip Neri, a 16th-century Italian priest and founder of the Oratorians, was also known for his sense of humour. He is said to have had a plaque beside his front door stating, “The House of Christian Mirth,” and was willing to make fun of himself — wearing his clothes inside out or shaving half his beard, for example — to make others laugh. With a joke book in his pocket and a friendly smile on his face, he easily drew people to him through his charm.

At the heart of Philip’s sunny attitude was the joy he found in his belief in God, a sense of gladness he felt should guide one’s everyday actions. “Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life,” he said. “Therefore, the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.”

But while his easy personality helped him engage people in conversations about God’s love and encouraged others to join in his charitable efforts, Saint Philip Neri was also someone who needed long periods of time by himself, often spending his nights praying alone in the catacombs of Rome.

Humour may have been this saint’s calling card, but Philip Neri was deliberate in his efforts to embrace the ability to laugh and to remind others that life shouldn’t always be taken too seriously, theorizing that “a joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”

That philosophy permeated Philip’s thinking, leading him to be an endless source of advice to live by as he chose to focus on the positive.

Consider this advice, for example: “If we wish to keep peace with our neighbour, we should never remind anyone of his natural defects.”

Funny but sensible, too.

Saint Philip Neri, whose feast day is celebrated today, is the patron saint of Catholic Missions in Canada.

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