'St. Phillip' by Peter Paul Rubens via Wikimedia Commons

Philip, Witness to the Multiplication of the Bread and Fishes

A man of high social status and culture who eventually suffered martyrdom. His bones now lie beneath the high altar of the Basilica of the Holy Apostles (Santi Apostoli) in Rome
Alessandro Zangrando

He was an apostle very close to Jesus, full of curiosity and willingness to risk, who said what others were afraid to say. Philip, too, came from Bethsaida, in Galilee, the town of the fishermen who left their nets to follow the Messiah, like Peter, Andrew, and James. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention him only once, in the list of the apostles, naming him fifth, before Bartholomew. We find a little more information in John. Jesus called together his first disciples and "after Jesus had decided to leave for Galilee, he met Philip and said, 'Follow me.'" (Jn 1:43) Philip accepted the invitation, with a "yes" full of conviction and enthusiasm. Immediately afterward he met Nathanael, who is identified as the apostle Bartholomew. Wasting no time, he shared his happiness with him: "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth." Nathanael was suspicious. But Philip did not try to convince him, nor did he give him any more details about the son of Joseph. He simply proposed to Nathanael: "Come and see." Nathanael went and saw, and after he saw his life too was changed in an instant. (Jn 1:45-51)

Philip stands out among his companions for his high social status and culture; he almost certainly could speak Greek, just as his name was Greek. In the group of apostles he must have achieved a certain amount of authority, as during Palm Sunday, some Greeks asked him if they could see the Master. This was a group of non-Jews who had come over to the monotheism of Israel, "God-fearing" men who had come to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. (Jn 12:20-22) On the occasion of the multiplication of the bread, Jesus wanted to test the faith of his disciple, who was probably in charge of supplies, and asked him where He could find the bread necessary to feed the crowd that had come to listen to Him. Philip thought about it and answered only that "two hundred denarii would not buy enough to give them a little piece each." (Jn 6:5-7) Philip is mentioned again in the last days of the Messiah's life on earth. During the Last Supper, Jesus explained to the apostles that knowing Him, they also know the Father. Philip did not understand His words and insisted, "Lord, show us the Father, and then we shall be satisfied." The Lord's answer has a tone of sadness: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (Jn 14:6-10) Later, everything was clearer to him. This is the last time that John speaks to us of Philip.

Against the dragon
Tradition tells us that the apostle evangelized part of Scythia and part of Lydia, and Phrygia. He was imprisoned by pagans in Scythia who wanted to sacrifice him to Mars, but a dragon burst into the temple, killing all near it with its pestilential breath. Philip, with the help of the Cross, defeated the dragon and converted the worshippers of Mars. He seems to have died in Phrygia, at Hierapolis, martyred in the same way as Peter by being crucified upside down. According to scholars he was buried right there; on the ancient necropolis is an inscription recalling a church dedicated to the apostle Philip and his work of evangelization. His remains were taken from Hierapolis to Constantinople, and from there to Rome, where in the sixth century Pope Pelagius founded a church dedicated to St. Philip and St. James, later called for brevity's sake the Holy Apostles. In the Basilica of the Holy Apostles, the remains of Jesus' two disciples still rest beneath the high altar.

Over a century ago, between 1869 and 1879, restoration and studies were carried out at the place of his burial. In 1873, in particular, some bones were found hidden in a recess of the ancient altar, which after numerous examinations and analyses were determined to be those of saints Philip and James. The date was January 15th. The emotional words of Fr. Bonelli witness to the event: "A little light was stuck into the hole, and we saw, o happy sight!Ö flickering white, many human bones, and someone shouted, 'Here are the holy apostles!'" The scholars had no doubt; the bones belong to two separate individuals, both adult males. Thus many doubts were erased, and questioning the exact location of the remains (to the point of hypothesizing that they had been stolen) came to an end. The documents that recount the nineteenth century investigation are an exceptional historical source. It emerges that these bones belonged to two personages who were out of the ordinary, a conclusion confirmed by the presence in the tomb of precious textiles and "vessels" from the sixth century.

A study by Ippolito Mazzucco throws light on the veneration of the two apostles in the West: "The limited amount of relics found suggests that at the moment of their placement in the altar, other churches or places, particularly in the East, preserved significant parts of these same venerated bodies. Assuming that they were in Rome in the second half of the sixth century, we can establish a very probable provenance for them in the East, where the apostles already had a cult. In any case, the joint veneration of the two apostles Philip and James began at their sanctuary in Rome and spread through all of Europe and into the East."