May 26 – George of Sofia; Philip Neri

George of Sofia the New Martyr (d. 1515) (Свети Ђорђе Кратовац), the answer-to-prayer baby of his parents’ old age, was either born in Kratovo (Serbia) and moved to Sofia (Bulgaria), or was born in Sofia and stayed there. His parents died when he was 25 (or 18), and then things started going downhill. He was jumped by a gang of Muslims, who forced a fez on his head. George threw it to the ground (red wasn’t his color), whereupon he was dragged to the governor. The governor suggested strongly he convert to Islam, whereupon George started outlining the errors of that religion for the benefit of all present. This was apparently not welcome, as the next thing he knew, he was being tortured. He prayed to the Lord for help, but was overcome and collapsed.

His tormentors built a large fire and threw George onto it (or tied him to a stake and then lit the fire), followed by a bunch of dead dogs, on the theory that the Christians wouldn’t be able to distinguish George’s bones from the dogs’. (Dogs in Sofia had foot-long femurs in those days. Tough dogs.) After a sudden rain squall quenched the flames, a heavenly light shone on his relics, and the Metropolitan and his clerics were able to find the right bones and inter them at the cathedral of that other St. George.

Philip Neri (1515–1595) was born into the lap of Florentine luxury, and by all accounts had a happy childhood, marked by the good cheer that would follow him the rest of his life, along with a love of music and practical jokes. “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than one that is cast down,” he said, and he lived what he preached. He was educated by Dominicans (which he never got over, thankfully), and sent at age eighteen to apprentice with his uncle Romolo in San Germano. While there, he had a mystical experience of some sort (sources are vague, as usual), which rendered him indifferent to the things of this world.

Thus he left for Rome without a penny (or whatever passed for pocket change in sixteenth century Italy) in his pocket, worked as a tutor for a bit, then took to preaching in the streets. One source explains that the people of Rome had become religiously lukewarm, and the church reflected the malaise of the corrupt secular society—which I think is admirably frank. Philip prayed for the city, and implored all and sundry (mostly sundry) to love—particularly, caring for the sick and needy—and spiritual integrity. Thus he is called “Apostle of Rome.”

He became a priest at the insistence of a friend, and went on to become a father-confessor to the rich and poor, famous and obscure, and other such dichotomies. One woman reports that she confessed to being a gossip and slanderer. Philip instructed her to buy a dead chicken, and walk from the marketplace to his church, plucking it as she went and scattering the feathers to the winds. When she arrove, he said, “Now go and collect the feathers.”

“How can I do that?” she exclaimed; “they are all scattered to the wind and cannot be retrieved.”

“So are the words you have said,” he told her. “You cannot take them back or collect them. Knock it off.”

Scholars are at odds (which is what they do best), but at least some of them credit Philip with the origin of the musical form called the oratorio, which (if they are right) started in his oratory (private chapel), where he led people in singing about biblical and religious themes. He also turned down the chance to become a cardinal, founded a society of secular* priests, and pleaded with the pope to forgive Henry IV of France for dallying in Protestantism. He is, interestingly enough, the patron saint of the United States Army Special Forces.