St Philip Benizi, who died 750 years ago and whose feast is on Friday was no ordinary Servite Prior, writes Stewart Foster.
THE SERV1TE Friars trace their origins to a group of early 13th century Florentine merchants — the Seven Holy Founders, canonized in 1888. However, one outstanding figure in their early history is held in special regard by the whole Servite family: St Philip Benizi, 5th Prior General, who died 750 years ago and whose feast is kept on 23 August.
By tradition, Philip was born in Florence in 1233 and was already "skilled in medicine" when he became a friar at the age of 21. It has been suggested that he studied philosophy and medicine at Paris, and completed his doctorate at Padua.
The Legenda of Philip's life relates that shortly after Easter 1254 Philip, seeking God's path for his future, entered the church of the recently-formed Servites in Florence. Struck by the words of the epistle of the day, "The Spirit said to Philip, 'Go up and meet the chariot" (Acts 8:29), and receiving a vision of the Blessed Virgin, Philip sought counsel from Era Bonfilius, one of the Founders, and was admitted as one of the brethren.
Yet, such was his humility in concealing his education. Philip lived as a laybrother at Monte Senario, cradle of the Order, a few miles outside Florence.
Philip's learning was revealed through an encounter with two Dominicans on the road to Siena in 1258. When asked to which Order he and his companion, Fra Victor, belonged, Philip declared: "We are sons of this land. But if you wish to know our status, we are called Servants of the glorious Virgin, the habit of whose widowhood we wear. We lead the life instituted by the holy Apostles, and follow the rule of the saintly doctor Augustine."
Philip was prepared for the priesthood and was ordained a few months later. He then served at the Servite priories in Florence and Cesena, and became a much esteemed figure in the Order.
At the Servites' General Chapter held at Florence in 1267 Philip was elected 5th Prior General, Thus began seventeen years of tireless care for his brethren, characterised by efficient legislation and administration, together with wisdom, compassion and great humility.
Philip's term of office was marked by strife and uncertainty in Church and state alike: eight Popes in seventeen years; the Guelf-Ghibelline struggles amongst Italian cities; and a twelve-year vacancy in the bishopric of Florence.
Yet by far the greatest test of Philip's skills was the threat posed to the future of the smaller Orders of friars by Canon 23 of the 2nd Council of Lyons (1274), Anxious to limit the number of smaller brotherhoods, the Council prohibited the admission of new members to such groups. The Servites were Faced with eventual extinction. Having summoned his advisers to Monte Senario, Philip was directed to seek the opinion of lawyers at Rome.
For ten years he worked to secure the Servites' survival, making visits to several Popes to this end and steering a careful course to avoid legal pitfalls. Sadly, he did not live to witness the Bull of Approbation granted to the Order by Benedict XI in 1304.
Philip was renowned for his simplicity and humility. His Legenda recounts that in 1268, on the death of Clement IV, a group of Cardinals considered him worthy of the Papal office.
On hearing this, Philip took refuge in a cave, remaining there until the danger had passed. Historians now deem this to be an interpolation, but artistic representations of Philip show the saint with the Papal crown at his feet — a sign of his humility.
Philip was also much concerned for the reconciliation of the warring Italian cities. Another story relates that during his first year as Prior General he visited the besieged city of Arezzo to console his starving brethren there.
He begged Our Lady not to abandon her Servants. A knock was heard at the church door and, when it was opened, no one was in sight — only two baskets of white bread. This tradition gave rise to the custom of the blessing of St Philip's Bread on his least day. '
Sensing that his life was drawing to an end, Philip relinquished his office and withdrew to the Servite priory at Todi. He died there on the evening of 22 August 1285.
A later tradition states that, on his deathbed, Philip called for his "book", and a crucifix was handed to him. Together with the Papal crown, and a lily (representing his humility), the crucifix is the third symbol associated with the saint.
Philip was venerated by the Servites from almost immediately after his death. In 1317 his relics were translated from their original tomb to the chapel of St Joseph on the church of San Marco in Todi. His cause was promoted by the Order and Philip was beatified in 1516.
In 1599 his remains were translated to the new Servite church of S Maria delle Grazie in Todi, and San Marco is now a Poor Clare convent, Finally, in 1671, Philip was canonized by Pope Clement IX.
This year is the 750th anniversary of the death of a man whom the Friar Servants of Mary rightly regard as their Order's "brightest light".