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The Importance of Immediate Obedience: A Story from St. Philip Neri

One of the virtues we associate with St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is obedience. In fact, from Scripture, we see that he exhibited what you might call right-away obedience. The Lord would give St. Joseph a dream in which He indicated what St. Joseph should do, and after he woke up, St. Joseph went and did what he was supposed to do.

It is a good lesson for you and me to learn, as well. Sometimes we know what we are being called to do, but we can be a little slow about actually doing what we are supposed to do. St. Joseph shows us the way we should respond to God--immediately.
St. Philip Neri (1515 - 1595) had an opportunity to teach that same lesson to one of his disciples. And the lesson came through one of the most important moments of a man's life.

St. Philip and the Congregation of the Oratory

Although from a poor family, Philip had received a very good education. When he was a young man, he had left his home in San Germano, Italy and traveled to Rome to further his education. However, his faith was of the most importance to him, and as a lay person, he would constantly evangelize those around him. Finally, he discerned a call and he was ordained a priest.

As one of several priests at his parish, Philip began to draw disciples because of his depth of spiritual knowledge and his concern for souls. Philip would frequently take his disciples around to the various churches and pilgrimage places around Rome. Philip also helped organize their care for the poor by leading by example as he would minister to the patients at the hospitals of Rome. Eventually, he would found a society of men who shared his concerns for the poor and development in the spiritual life. He called his group the Congregation of the Oratory.

Philip was known for making himself available to administer the sacraments as much as possible. He was frequently hearing confessions and had many people who came to him on a regular basis in order to make their confessions and to receive spiritual advice from Philip.
One of the men who frequently made his confessions to Philip was a man named Cesare Baronio. Baronio had studied law in Naples before moving to Rome. When he first met Philip in Rome he had completed his doctorate in civil law and canon law. Soon, he would come under Philip's influence and joined the Oratory. Baronio would later be ordained, succeed Philip as head of the Oratory, become confessor to Pope Clement VIII, and be made a cardinal.

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Your Confession Can Wait

One Sunday, Baronio came to Philip for confession. Instead of agreeing to hear Baronio's confession, Philip told him to immediately go to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit and that he would hear Baronio's confession later. Surprised by this turn of events, Baronio told Philip that the visiting hours at the hospital were over for the day. And beside, there was nothing else which could be done for patients as everything had already been done for them that day. (Baronio did not mention that he really wanted some time for himself at this moment.)
Philip did not wait for Baronio to finish with his excuses, but urged him to get going and to stop delaying over his own affairs. At this point, Baronio decided to obey without any further ado. He reasoned that Philip would not have asked him to go to the hospital if there was not a good reason.

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Better Late than Never

When he arrived at the hospital, he was not sure what to do so he began looking around at the patients to determine if someone needed his help. His eye caught one patient who was obviously ready to die. As was the custom for such a patient, a candle was lit next to him. Taking this as his cue for who might need him the most, Baronio approached the man and gently greeted him. Not receiving much of a acknowledgment, Baronio followed up to ask the man if he had made a confession and received Holy Communion.
The very weakened man indicated with a barely audible voice that he had not received the sacraments and gave every indication that he would die very soon.
Baronio shot up from his place beside the dying man and raced to the chaplain. He begged the priest to come immediately to see this man and to administer to him the sacraments because it was clear he would not be long for this earth.
The chaplain then began to make excuses as he explained to Baronio that it was fruitless. He told Baronio how the patient had come to the hospital last night at an inconvenient time. After the man had been put into bed without confessing his sins, the nurses forgot about him. The priest went on to explain how the man's condition had worsened before the hospital staff knew it. By the time the priest got around to visiting the man, the man was unable to move, even unconscious and not able to speak. The chaplain had anointed him but was not able to hear his confession.
Nonetheless, Baronio was able to convince the priest to return with him to the man. The chaplain came next to the man and explained to the man that as he was dying, would he like to make a confession. The man nodded his head.
The priest who had not seen the man move at all was surprised. The chaplain was in for another shock when the man who had been barely able to utter any discernible sounds, was able to give a clear confession. After giving absolution, the priest who was still stunned at what he had witnessed, gave the man Holy Communion.
Very soon after that, the ill man closed his eyes for the last time on this earth.
Baronio rejoiced in God's having granted the man grace to receive the last rites. On his way back to Philip, Baronio discerned that the Lord had kept the man's soul attached to his body long enough for Philip to send the man the help that he needed before departing this life. And God must have granted Philip the special knowledge that Baronio was needed at the hospital rather than giving his confession. After returning to Philip and before he gave his confession, Baronio told Philip the whole story. In reply, Philip said, "Perhaps that will teach you to do at once whatever I ask you in the future."

* There is a similar story regarding another saint--St. John Baptist de Rossi--which interestingly enough actually took place at the same hospital in Rome--the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Read Led by the Holy Spirit to Save a Life.

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