Next Monday, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, and the Church celebrates the feast of St. Philip Neri. One event is secular, the other Catholic. A word about each.
On Memorial Day, a civil holiday with no link to any religious sect or viewpoint, we Americans pause to remember our war heroes. The day is marked by secular and patriotic rituals—displaying the America flag, and waving it, playing taps, gun salutes, parades, singing patriotic songs, and encomia offered by civil servants. In churches across the country, our heroes are also remembered in prayer. We call them heroes because they gave their lives to something bigger than themselves in defense of freedom, not simply for us Americans but for other nations as well.
Originally known as “Decoration Day,” this day of remembrance was founded to honor the soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War.
The high honors owed to our war dead extend from those who lost their lives in the name of freedom in the Revolutionary War to our latest heroes in Afghanistan. They remain with us in spirit because they inspire us with their heroic acts.
Len Greenwood has perhaps caught the spirit of Memorial Day with the lyrics of the popular song, “God Bless the USA:” “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.”
From the very outset when we fought for those truths that are always self-evident, patriotism has been an integral part of the American psyche. This is why the words spoken by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961 are so vital to hold dear: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” They were meant to urge all Americans, young and older than young, to assume responsibility for their country by participating in public service, a noble task and challenge.
The Gettysburg Address was intended to honor the dead from North and South who were strewn across the fields and hills of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. President Lincoln’s words are nevertheless appropriate for any Memorial Day: “That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” His speech has been memorized as one of the greatest in American history.
St. Philip Neri (1515-95)
On May 26, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Philip Neri. In Rome, he founded the Congregation of the Oratory (C.O.), an association of secular priests who live in community with a vow of celibacy but with no other religious vows. They are dedicated to promote holiness of priestly life, and in particular, to foster good preaching and well-prepared liturgical worship.
The core of Philip Neri’s apostolate thrust focused on an unpretentious return to simplicity, in imitation of Christ. The Oratorians, as they came to be known, were to rediscover the common touch by entering into the suffering present both in palaces as well as in the back alleys of Renaissance Rome. Philip Neri was one of St. John Paul II’s favorite saints because of his cheerful disposition and his ability to summarize his sermons in short, wise maxims. “Be good, if you can,” was one of his shortest but wisest. Some other proverbs are given below:
“The love of God makes us do great things.”
“Nothing helps a man more than prayer.”
“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; wherefore, the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.”
“In dealing with our neighbor, we must assume as much pleasantness of manner as we can, and by this affability win him to the way of virtue.”
“The cheerful are much easier to guide in the spiritual life than the melancholy.”
“When God intends to grant men and women any particular virtue, it is his way to let them be tempted to the opposite virtue.”
“Let no one wear a mask, otherwise he will do ill; and if he has one, let him burn it.”
“Men are generally the carpenters of their own crosses.”
“We ought to abhor every kind of affectation, whether in talking, dressing, or anything else.”
Today there are about seventy Oratories and some 500 hundred Oratorian priests throughout the world. Oratories are located in Brooklyn, NY, New Brunswick, NJ, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA. In Britain, there are the Birmingham and Brompton Oratories. The latter was founded in 1849 by Frederick William Faber and John Henry Newman (now St. John Henry Newman). The London Oratory School, located in Brompton, London has been shaped by the religious and cultural identity of the Congregation of the Oratory with strong ties to the Brompton Oratory. The school is also renowned for its schola cantorum with its fine choral music and instrumental program. It continues to advance England’s distinguished heritage of liturgical music that began long before the Protestant Reformation when England was still Catholic.
St. Philip Neri is the patron saint of the Oratory schools, and next Monday, the school will honor him with a festive Mass. The school also honors other English saints and martyrs: Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, Sts. Philip Howard Arundel and Nicholas Owen, and the Jesuits Sts. Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. One day, two celebrations.