Gabriel was walking the streets of sixteenth-century Rome. He was hot. Nowhere were there magnificent buildings, only decay. But there was activity, building, movement, heat arising from the rubble of the long-fallen empire.
He longed for greatness, the echoes of which he could see all around him.
He came across a great procession. A cardinal was walking to St John Lateran, all glory and pomp. Horses, carriages, servants, red and other strong colours predominated. Awed, yes but also of course he was depressed by the sight. He could never attain such heights though he believed he had the restless ability.
Now as the dust literally settled he came across a shabby priest.
But a priest with an eager eye and smiling countenance.
Gabriel recounted his ambitions.
“E poi? – And then?” said the priest.
A greater job.
Titles, wealth, fame.
Always Gabriel came to the end and the priest asked “And then?”
And then of course was the end. All that mattered was the encounter then and a deeper understanding and relationship with God.
The priest was Philip.
This story of the encounter between St Philip Neri is not my own.
I went to a Mass at my son’s school and the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory recounted this true story of how St Philip used to convert young people. It struck me most forcibly. The question endlessly repeated – “And then?” All this life, all this egocentricity we take so seriously and are so upset by its setbacks is a series of little dots between two full stops.
The only really worthwhile question is “and what then?” The question occurred to me when I sat in Westminster Hall and listened to the President of the United States later that day.
For all the pomp and glory and adulation, colleagues craning their necks struggling to shake the hand of supposed greatness, but… “and then?”