Saint Philip Benizi, by Father C H McKenna, OP

detail of a statue of Philip Benizi de Damiani, by Rinaldino di Francia, date unknown; Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, Padua, Italy; photographed on 1 June 2016 by Didier Descouens; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsOn the 15th of August, 1233, Philip Benizi was born. The son of an excellent Florentine family, his birth was hailed with joy by all who knew his parents. They had been married for years without offspring, and Philip was regarded, like Samuel, as an answer to their prayers. His biographers tell us that the boy was born at the hour when the Con fraternity of the Laudesi were chanting the praises of Mary, and at the very time when Mary was communicating to the Seven Sainted Founders the secrets of Heaven.

Albaverde, like the mother of Saint Dominic, had a premonition of her son’s future sanctity. If Blessed Joanna saw her child under the figure of a whelp, with lighted torch, running hither and thither, setting the world on fire, Albaverde saw Philip as a brilliant flame, illumining the world by its brightness. Our Blessed Mother must have smiled on the new-born boy, for his mission was to propagate devotion to her sorrows. Philip was destined not only to give form and stability to her new Order of Servants, but to him was given, more than to any other man since the days of the disciple of love, to lift the veil that hides her sorrowing heart, and gaze down into that fathomless sea of woe which engulfed her soul on the heights of Calvary.

Philip was one of the Florentine infants, who, long before the dawn of reason, proclaimed the sanctity of the Seven Founders, and gave the name to their future Order; for, when yet but a few months old, he begged his mother, in clear, unmistakable words, to give relief to the Servants of Mary. Like the manger of Bethlehem, Philip’s cradle was his first pulpit, whence he commenced to preach to a sensual world the doctrine of prayer and of penance, and to point out by his example the narrow path that leads to Heaven. For, long before the period when reason asserts its sway over the mind of children, Philip began on fast days of the Church to deny himself his food, and as soon as he was able to crawl out of his little bed, he would be found by his nurse either prostrate on the floor, or kneeling apparently absorbed in prayer.

For a time his good mother and his nurse did all they could to make their charge take his food on fast days, thinking, says his biographer, his was only a childish freak; but they were finally forced to desist, and let him have his own way, or rather, leave him to follow the attractions of grace.

To a sensual age like our own, how strange all this must appear! Our children must be indulged, pampered, kept as hot house plants; yet they wilt and die by the thousands. Our young people must seek every remedy for bodily ills, every preventive against diseases, every means of prolonging life; yet the cemeteries are filled with their graves, whilst many of God’s saints, who ever treated their bodies as their enemies, have lived to a round old age.

Witness the life of Anthony of the desert, of Paul the first hermit, of Basil, Jerome, and so many others. Who today has a brighter intellect, or works harder than our illustrious Pontiff; yet who has lived more abstemiously? The same was also true of England’s late Cardinals.

But apart from the life of the body, which abstinence and fasting help to prolong, the saints knew no other path to Heaven. It was the lesson taught by the Master. For if in one place He tells us that we must renounce all to be His disciple, in another He declares that we must deny ourselves and take up our Cross daily and follow Him. He said, “The grain must rot and die before it can bring forth fruit,” and His Holy Spirit already began to speak to the heart of Philip, though yet a child, teaching him to commence the life of an apostle by self-denial, prayer, and fasting. The venerable ascetic Benedictine, Father Baker, says: “Our duty in our present state, the whole employment of our lives, should be to co-operate with divine grace; endeavoring constantly to conquer self-love, pride, sensuality, and other vices of our fallen nature. And by the practice of the opposite virtues, we should daily aspire to unlimited holiness, even to that perfect union with God enjoyed by Adam before his fall.” “Self-love and all affection for creatures must be utterly extinguished in us,” he says, “except in as far as we love creatures in God, and for Him; and that they help us to aspire to God.” To this union with God all arc called, for all arc called to be perfect, and to this God’s Spirit urges all men. But, like the seed that fell among thorns, the divine voice is stifled in most men by the cares of the world, and by the demands of sensuality. The flesh will brook no contradiction. It must be satisfied, even to the ruin of soul and body.

Like most of God’s saints, Philip was given a holy mother, which, says the Cure of Ars, is one of the greatest blessings that can be given to a child. Albaverde and her devout husband were delighted with the early manifestations of piety in their boy, and, knowing the necessity of surrounding his youth with every safeguard of virtue, they sought for him a learned religious tutor. Alas, that in our days parents are so indifferent with regard to the environments of their children! They permit, nay, they force their little ones to associate with the offspring of the degraded, the vile, the adulterous, unmindful that a “bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” These parents seem satisfied with the teachings of institutions to which God never promises His Spirit. To His Church alone He gave power to teach the nations those principles of faith and of morality without which conscience is blinded by passion; and men and nations hasten to their ruin.

Philip’s tutor left nothing undone to advance his pupil in virtue and learning. Before the age of ten, he daily recited the Litany of the Saints, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and the Little Office of our Blessed Lady, practices which he maintained during his laborious life. It was edifying, said one of his biographers, to see the little boy assist with his good mother at the services of the Church, and to notice with what recollection he was present at Mass, and how eagerly he drank in the instructions and sermons of the preacher. He was scarcely twelve when he was sufficiently advanced in his studies to enter the University, and his father concluded to send him to Paris.

Paris had then the most famous University of the world. Its University was also one of the most dangerous places to the morality of youth. Why, it may be asked, did James Benizi expose his boy to the dangers of the University, where so many immoral young men from all parts of Europe were congregated? One reason is given, that he dreaded least his son should enter some Religious Or der, whilst he desired for Philip some honorable position in society. The father was proud of the wonderful talents manifested by the boy, which were surely destined to lead to a brilliant future.

At that time Florence was filled with religious enthusiasm. The world was ringing with the fame, both of the Sons of Saint Dominic and of Saint Francis. Their respective novitiates were crowded with men of all ages, desirous of serving God in the more perfect way. In Florence itself the fame of the seven holy founders was daily increasing, and many of her best young men were knocking for admittance at the gates of Monte Senario.

Whether James Benizi dreaded that his gifted son might seek admission into one of tho Religious Orders, or whether he simply sought his higher education, we know not; he certainly spared nothing for the advancement of his boy’s temporal interests, and we have reason to believe that he strongly hoped our Blessed Mother, whom his son so ardently loved, would preserve him from the corruptions of the University.

Nor was the father disappointed in his boy. Philip continued in Paris the same life of prayer and of mortification, which he had pursued in his father’s house. Nay, he redoubled his austerities, and gave more of his nights to prayer, lest the enemy of his virtue should gain any entrance into his virgin heart.

The University of Paris was then chiefly noted for its faculty of Theology. The Dominicans came to Paris in 1217, and the Franciscans one year later. Among the latter, Alexander Hales had taught with wonderful fame, “leaving his mantle to one of his Order greater than himself,” the Seraphic Saint Bonaventure. Among the Dominicans, Albert the Great was then at the zenith of his glory. So vast was the number of young men who flocked to hear him that no building could contain them. His chair was placed in an open square which to-day is known as Place Maubert, or place of Master Albert. Among the pupils of Albert was one of his own brethren, the great Aquinas, “great as the master himself, nay, greater, one whom to have trained honors the teacher more than all his works.” It is impossible to describe the effect of such men’s teachings on the brilliant religious mind of Philip.

James Benizi did not leave his son to finish his studies in Paris, but sent him to the University of Padua, which in law and medicine excelled even Paris, and there, when “he had hardly completed his twentieth year, he passed the customary examinations in philosophy and medicine so brilliantly, that his degrees were conferred amidst unanimous applause.” Philip returned to his proud parents, and commenced the practice of medicine. In a short time the city was full of admiration of the skilful young physician, so retiring, so humble; at the same time, so charitable, and so attentive to the poor. Philip was now courted by the best society in Florence, but he shunned its enchanting snares, frequented the churches and the sacraments more than ever, and hungered for that peace and solitude which the world cannot give or understand.

One of the shrines, in which Philip delighted to pray, was the Annunziata, which was among the most devotional places in Florence. Here, pilgrims came from all parts of Europe to pray, and to gaze on its miraculous picture of the Annunciation. This chapel was built by the new Order of Servites; and, in gratitude for the wonderful vision which they received on the Feast of the Annunciation, they determined to have a picture of our Lady as represented in that Mystery. A large space was reserved behind the altar for the fresco, and one Bartholomew, then famous as a painter, was selected for the work. The artist, a devout man, prepared himself for his work, as was his custom, by confession and communion, and commenced by first painting the Angel Gabriel, then the neck, hands, and body of our Lady, but hesitated to paint her face. It may be he had a vision of the Immaculate One which overpowered him. Again and again he made the attempt to finish his picture, but to no purpose. Bartholomew slept, and on awaking, behold! a wondrous face had been given to his Madonna. The news spread with lightning speed. The whole city was moved. Artists came from afar to gaze on the miraculous painting, so beautiful, so heavenly. Michael Angelo, the great painter, was asked by the Duke of Tuscany his opinion of the painting. He said: “If any one were to tell me this was painted by human hands, I should say that it was untrue, and I know something of my business.”

It was on the 25th of March, 1252, when the miraculous painting appeared, and, immediately, wonderful miracles began to be performed in favor of those who came to pray before it. No wonder Philip loved to visit this miraculous image! A short time previously, whilst his heart burned with love for God, and with an ardent desire to leave the world and all its goods, and consecrate himself forever to his Master’s service, he heard a voice as if coming from the crucifix to his heart, saying: “Go, Philip, to the high hill; ascend to the spot where the Servants of My Mother dwell, and thou wilt do what is pleasing to My Father.”

Philip’s heart seemed to melt within him. His name was uttered with such sweetness! His tears flowed in abundance. Here was another proof of the love of Jesus for the Servants of Mary, and for those who love to honor her sorrows. Though this should have sufficed to point out his vocation to Philip, he wanted a clearer evidence of the will of Heaven. For this purpose he sought the aid of the Annunziata, and poured out prayers and tears before the miraculous Madonna. Suddenly his soul was stilled. A wondrous vision opened before him. He saw the world like a frightful desert, full of yawning abysses. Hissing serpents and savage beasts appeared on every side ready to destroy him. Paralyzed with fear and terror, he raised his eyes to the Madonna, when he heard a sweet voice calling him by name. In a clear blue sky he saw a magnificent chariot surrounded by angels, and seated in the chariot on an ivory throne hung with black drapery, our Immaculate Mother, brighter than ten thousand suns, with a crown of stars on her head, and clad in a long, flowing black mantle. Then he heard the words: “Draw near, and join thyself to the chariot.” At the same time our Lady beckoned him to approach, and showed him the Servite Habit. Philip was roused from his ecstasy by a brother of the convent telling him it was time to close the church. That night Philip spent in prayer in his own room. The vision was repeated. He could no longer doubt. He hastened in the morning to beg admittance among the Servites, imploring, with tears in his eyes, to be admitted as a by brother, a servant^of the Servants of Mary. Philip was received with joy, sent to Monte Senario, and there by vigorous penances and long vigils he prepared himself for that wondrous life of labor in spreading his Order, and in inflaming the hearts of men with love and pity for our Mother of Sorrows.

– text from the article “Saint Philip Benizi” by Very Rec. C. H. McKenna, O. P. from the The Rosary Magazine, August 1895