Biblically, Ascension took place 40 days after the Resurrection and so the actual Ascension Day falls on a Thursday – which is what we used to celebrate every year. Recently the bishops of New Jersey met and after discussing the pros and cons of this practice have discerned that the Solemnity of the Ascension be permanently transferred from Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter to the following Sunday. The bishops’ discernment included a great desire for more of the faithful to participate in this integral dimension of the completion of Our Lord’s paschal mystery by the Ascension observed on a Sunday – which will be next Sunday.
This year, Thursday, May 26 will be observed as Thursday of the Sixth week of Easter and the Memorial of St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) who is known as the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. We have Oratorian priests and brothers in our diocese and so it is their feast in a special way. As a layman, Philip spent several years in Rome performing all kinds of good works – especially in ministering to the sick, in catechizing the youth, and in providing for pilgrims. Under constant advice and persuasion from his spiritual director, he decided to be a priest and was ordained in 1551. He was almost 36 years old, a “delayed vocation” in the extreme by the standards of the day, but without the least difference in priestly zeal and vigor.
St. Philip Neri is commonly known as the “patron saint of joy,” and the “humorous saint.” He wasn’t exactly a comedian, but he did enjoy poking fun at himself, using humor to maintain his humility. For example, according to author Shaun McAfee, “Neri was known to show up to important events with half his beard shaved, give incorrect walking directions to his disciples, read a book of jokes … When he did each of these things he caused a mix of emotions in others, but it always ended up producing the same end state: increased humility, and increased patience.” St. Philip Neri hung this sign on his door: “The House of Christian Mirth.” He used to say: “A heart filled with joy is more easily made perfect than one that is sad.”
Holiness is related to humor. That is why many saints laughed at themselves; they knew that this earthly life is only a stop on our journey to heaven and so to take this world seriously is utter foolishness. Bishop Sheen once said, “A divine sense of humor belongs to poets and saints because they have been richly endowed with a sense of the invisible, and can look out upon the same phenomena that other mortals take seriously and see in them something of the divine.”
This is what Pope Francis has been reminding us when he said, to be a Christian doesn’t mean being “gloomy-faced,” but being filled with a levity of heart that recognizes the beauty and joy of Christian life. Humor in the right context can be a good thing, and even a pathway to holiness. St. Philip Neri practiced it. His joyful spirit was one of the reasons why many were attracted to him. They saw the joy he had and wanted to know the source of that joy. They realized that the source was Jesus who said: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Your brother in Christ,
Fr. Abraham Orapankal