Faith, Fire, & Heroism
In the United States, there have been nine fires which blazed in seven parishes named St. Philip Neri (two parishes were damaged twice). In three of these fires, the local media recorded priests rescuing the Blessed Sacrament.
Parishes with the same name being damaged by fire, or religious rushing in to a blazing sanctuary to save the Blessed Sacrament, while rare, is not unheard of in Church history.
What draws us to these three parishes is the recurring elements of faith, fire, and an heroic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. They point us to a Truth beyond the events themselves.
To understand this connection we need to look at the spiritual experience of the parishes’ namesake. In the life of Filippo Romolo de’Neri, fire and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament defined his holiness.
Faith From Fire
The story actually starts two thousand years ago when Jesus promised to send the Holy Sprit.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” – Acts Of the Apostles 2:1-3
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles fearlessly preached the Good News, even to death as martyrs of the faith.
A Personal Pentecost
Over 1,500 years later another fiery descent of the Holy Spirit occurred in Rome at the catacomb of San Sebastiano. While deep in prayer during the vigil of Pentecost in 1544, Filippo Romolo de’Neri saw a globe of fire appear before him.
As he gazed at the globe, it entered his mouth and lodged in his chest. His heart, filled with Divine love, swelled to the extent of breaking two of his ribs which then formed an arch around it. The fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Filippo’s heart would literally warm a room when he entered.
Scripture provides insight as to what happened:
“the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” – Romans 5:5
The Church noted additional phenomena in its canonization documents about St. Philip Neri:
“The interior fire oft-times flowed upon his outer body, when he directed his attention to divine things, so that his face and eyes sent forth sparks of fire” -Bull of Canonization
Filled with the Holy Spirit, he fearlessly preached the Good News to such an extent that he became known as the ‘Apostle of Rome’.
This personal Pentecost, besides bestowing many miraculous spiritual gifts, inspired him in 1548 to promote the Forty Hours of Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The forty hours are in honor of the time Our Lord spent in the tomb. While not the first to promote this sacred devotion, he was one of the first to foster it on a large scale.
A Different Fire
In America, St. John Neumann (1811-60), the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, was also a strong proponent of the Forty Hours Devotion. While the practice had already existed in individual churches throughout the city (as well as in other places in the country), no diocesan schedule for it had ever before been attempted.
Anti-Catholicism was rampant in America at the time, with several parishes being damaged by mob violence. Neumann had to decide between exposing the Blessed Sacrament to the faithful while also exposing it to possible desecration by an angry mob.
An unusual experience occurred which made up his mind to proceed with the devotion.
One night, while working very late at his desk he fell asleep in his chair. The candle on the desk burned down and charred some documents. He awoke, amazed that a fire had not ignited. He fell on his knees giving thanks to God and heard the Lord’s voice saying, “As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so shall I pour out my grace in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to My honor. Fear no profanation, therefore; hesitate no longer to carry out your design for my glory.”
Neumann introduced the practice of 40 Hours Devotion at the first diocesan synod in April, 1853, with the first devotions initiating at St. Philip Neri Parish..
The Three Churches
“What was, will be again, what has been done, will be done again…
No memory remains of the past, and so it will be for the centuries to come — they will not be remembered by their successors.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:9, 11
October 14, 1897
The Philadelphia Record
Historic Church in Flames, St. Philip de Neri Damaged
“…The hundreds of people who gathered in the vicinity of the church, seeing its imminent danger of destruction, started to remove the many adornments. Rescuers were led by Monsignor Nicholas Cantwell and Father Smith who removed the Sacred Host and precious altar fixtures.”
Bronx New York
December 4, 1912
The New York Times
Priests Save Church Relics. Risk Their Lives When Church of St. Philip Neri Burns
“Two priests Father Daniel F.X. Burke and Father Joseph Congedo risked their lives early yesterday morning in a fire which practically destroyed the rear of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Philip Neri , the Bronx, in order to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and other sacred vessels from destruction. Groping through the smoke, they made their way to the Altar and emerged a few moments later bearing the Host and Chalice.”
Rochester, New York
February 20, 1967
Democrat & Chronicle
Nun Dies, Priest Burned As Fire Destroys Church
“…two alarm blaze which burned out St. Philip Neri Church killed a nun and left the pastor in critical condition. Sister Lilian Marie McLaughlin, 26, a second grade teacher at the parish school, died in the fire while helping the pastor, Rev. George J. Weinmann, 77, save the Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion wafers kept in the tabernacle).”
Perhaps it was divine coincidence that this date was a Monday, the day of the week the Church traditionally honors the Holy Spirit. Fulton Sheen, Bishop of Rochester arriving at the scene of the fire stated:
“Martyrs belong to our own times, and in most unexpected moments. Sister Lilian Marie gave her life in helping Father Weinmann save the Blessed Sacrament from fire. Greater love than this no woman hath.”
At Father Weinmann’s funeral Mass, Bishop Sheen eulogized him as a “..martyred priest in behalf of his Blessed Lord”
What can we take from this relationship of the Holy Spirit, fire, St. Philip Neri and the Blessed Sacrament?
At the very least, these common threads make it easier for us to remember the True Presence of Christ. They provide a reflection of the heroism in living and dying for this Truth..
However, in the end, we ask why did these holy men and holy woman risk their lives running into a blazing church to rescue wafers of bread? Was it a Fire within which drew them into a fire from without? What belief could motivate such passion to return the Lord’s love with their own lives?
Our questions reflect what was already asked in Scripture long ago:
“What return can I make to the Lord for all his goodness to me? ”
– Psalm 116:12
Saint Philip Neri himself best explained this inspiration for such a return offering over 400 years ago when he preached:
“Our sweet Jesus, through the excess of His love and liberality, has left Himself to us in the Most Holy Sacrament.”