ST PHILIP BENIZI Feastday August 23
“You are the light of the world.” We’ve heard these words of Jesus to his followers many times. When we hear them we think, “He’s not talking about me. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m a sinner?’ Precisely. Jesus knows his audience very well. What he means when he says “You are the light of the world” is that he has put his light within us. Jesus is the true light of the world; but his light continues to shine through ordinary human beings like us. And if Jesus has given us a particular gift, a particular light that the world needs in order to see the path to him, then Jesus wants us to let that light shine. If we try to hide our light, then the whole world suffers.
One of the great lights among the Servants of Mary was St. Philip Benizi, and his light almost went undetected. Philip was born in Florence in the early thirteenth century. God blessed Philip with great intelligence and imagination. Coming from a wealthy family, Philip had the opportunity to develop his natural aptitude at the finest schools. Philip, though, was not particularly impressed with himself. He thought himself very small compared to the greatness of God. In other words, Philip understood perfectly the first stage of humility (how unimportant we are by ourselves), but he had not yet arrived at the second stage of humility (how great we can be when filled with God’s Spirit).
Philip applied to the Servites as a lay brother. For four years apparently none of the Servants knew about his intelligence or education. But Philip could not hide his light forever. A remark here, a suggestion there: these served as little hints that there were resources within Philip that were not being tapped. It was not that there was anything shameful or second-rate about the life Philip had chosen within the Order. It was simply that the Order desperately needed someone who could be their leader.
As is often the case when a new group begins to rally around God, the group’s enthusiasm and vision outrun the attention given to practical aspects of building a solid foundation in the Church. The Founders were dying, and with them was dying the initial call from God that bound the group together. How should the Servites organize themselves within the Church? Where should they live? What work should they do? How did Mary, who had touched the lives of the Founders so deeply, fit into the lives of those who followed the Founders? These were questions that had to be answered if the Servants of Mary were to continue. And it was Philip’s ability to grapple with these questions that made him seem like a gift sent by Mary to her Servants.
Once his light came out from under the bushel, Philip quickly rose to leadership in the Order. In 1267 he was elected prior general, an office he held practically to the day of his death in 1285. His gifts once brought forth were so luminous that he was even considered for pope.
Philip was responsible for increasing the number of communities in the Order and organizing them into provinces. He completed the Rule of Life and used all his gifts of wisdom and discretion to pave the way for the final approval of the Order by the Roman Curia. Through it all, Philip never saw himself as anyone other than “Brother Philip.” That’s the way he commonly introduced himself. After completing his service as head of the Order, he moved to Todi, the poorest house in the Order.
Several miracles were attributed to Philip during his lifetime. Once when a community was without food, Philip prayed and two baskets of bread appeared at the priory door.
At his death Philip’s contemporaries quickly proclaimed him a saint (He was canonized in 1671). Yet those who called him a saint based their belief not on his historical importance or his brilliance or his diplomatic skills, but on his genuine concern for his brother Servites. An ancient document about St. Philip says simply, “He loved his brothers.”
Joseph Chamblain, OSM. Servants of Mary – Reflections on the Servite Saints and Blessed