Fire of Joy

Ferry Galbert, a seminarian at St. John Fisher Seminary, gave the following address at the Second Annual Rector’s Dinner on Saturday, May 18, which honored Msgr. Stephen M. DiGiovanni, founding rector of the seminary and pastor of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, along with Phil and Judy DeFelice, longtime supporters of the seminary.

Good evening, my brothers and sisters in the Lord. It is a blessing for me to stand here on behalf of my brother seminarians for this great event, as we honor Monsignor DiGiovanni, and Phil and Judy DeFelice, who have all played a role in my vocation.

I have spent the last two and a half years at Saint John Fisher, and in the fall, I will enter Saint Joseph’s Seminary in New York. God willing, in four years, the bishop will ordain me and my classmates—Andrew, Jim, Matthew and Miguel—to the priesthood. Please pray for us, that we will be faithful and persevere, and please pray for more vocations for our diocese.

During our time at Fisher, our rector, Father Check, liked to remind us that “Jesus Christ lived an intensely happy and fulfilled human life.” Wait!, Did you catch that? Let me repeat that for you one more time: “Jesus Christ lived an intensely happy and fulfilled human life.” Jesus lived a joyful life because He lived a life of self-giving love for His Father and for us. We see His self-giving and sacrifice expressed most powerfully on the Cross.

I find this truth of the Gospel—the relationship between self-giving and joy—reflected in the life of Saint Philip Neri, who was known as the Apostle of Joy. I first learned about Saint Philip through watching EWTN when, 16 years ago, I was preparing for my Confirmation at the Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist in Stamford, my home parish. I met with the pastor, Monsignor DiGiovanni, to share what I was learning in religious education and to explain the reasons I had chosen St Philip Neri as my patron saint. Later, Mgsr. invited me to work in the parish office. I guess I did okay with that interview…

Father Check was our parochial vicar at the time and I asked him to be my confirmation sponsor. Today, 16 years later, I marvel at the providence of God, as I stand here in the room with the same two priests, but now, as a man in formation for the priesthood.

I recall how Msgr. DiGiovanni would occasionally stop at the office before I had to lock up the church at 4:30 in the afternoon, saying: “Hey Fer! What are you waiting for, just do it.”  He would catch me off guard because I would think he was talking about locking the church. But he’d continue: “Just knock it off and enter the seminary!” At this point, I would respond: “Father, I have to lock up the church.”

So, what was it about Philip Neri that touched my heart? Very simply: Philip Neri had a great love for God. In 1544, he had such an intense experience of God’s love that his heart physically expanded. People said that they could hear his heart beating from several feet away, especially when he was praying or saying Mass. When doctors examined his body after his death, they discovered that his heart was so enlarged, that two of his ribs had been broken and had even curved in the form of an arch. Saint Philip loved God so much that he embraced God’s will and allowed the Lord to do whatever He wanted with his life.  Aside from his mystical experiences, Saint Philip felt, on the natural level, a real, noticeable growth of his heart that caused him great discomfort. We could say that Our Lord was making room in Saint Philip’s heart for the divine love that would enable him to do the work Jesus had in mind for him.

Artists often depict Saint Philip Neri’s love for God through an image of him holding a heart on fire. We can learn much from the life of so great a saint. In particular, we can learn what it means to truly love God and our neighbor with all our hearts. We live in a world that is obsessed with self, where we can remain unaware of the needs and the goodness of those around us, and we can neglect the love of God who created us and redeemed us in love. As a result, we lack joy and a sense of fulfillment. More than ever, we need the example of a Saint Philip Neri to ignite our hearts with a love for God and for our neighbor. We need his example to learn what it means to live a joyful life built on love and service.

The image of Saint Philip’s heart burning with love for Christ reflects the description of Jesus’ heart in the Litany of the Sacred Heart as a “burning furnace of charity.”  We conclude that Litany by saying, “O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.”

We often think of fire as that which destroys, but fire can also purify. In gratitude for the love of Christ who saved us through the Cross, we should ask our Lord to expand our hearts spiritually, to increase our capacity to love Him and His image in others.  For this to happen, we need hearts that have been purified of sin and selfishness, through God’s mercy and grace, by the fire of His love.

The consuming flame dwelling within Saint Philip’s heart was the fire of charity, the fire of the Holy Spirit. Saint Philip teaches us that this fire brings true freedom, because it purifies us from the things that are not of God, and it leads us to a deeper union with Him by way of a conversion of heart. And conversion leads to a greater, burning desire to give ourselves in service to Christ and His Church. This service, this self-giving, leads to joy. Saint Philip’s biographer writes, “This man with his goodness and his humor went out to all men and made them his brothers, fathers, friends, and gave everything he had to relieve the needs of others and yet preferred nothing to the love of Christ.”

At Saint John Fisher, we strive to grow as a community of prayer and charity, to seek the truth, to empty ourselves in service to one another, so that we can “put on the mind of Christ” and be filled with the love of His Sacred Heart. I have come to embrace all the more the joy in living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the priesthood is a sign to the world that one can live for something, indeed for Someone, and not just for earthly things.

In closing, my brothers and sisters in the Lord, I ask you these questions: What is it that that sets your heart on fire? What is the cross upon your shoulder? Our Lord promised that He would not leave us orphans and that He would send us the Paraclete. The fire of divine love, so evident in the life of Saint Philip Neri, and so compelling to those who knew him, must occupy ever more space in our hearts, as well, and even stretch our hearts, painfully at times, so that we can fulfill God’s wise and gracious will for us…and so receive what He is most eager to share with us: His presence, His peace, and His joy.