Rocco Palma over at Whispers has a refreshing essay on "Did Jesus Laugh' and the history of Christian attitudes toward levity, jokes, humor, and playfulness. His post was triggered by Fr. James Martin's essay: On Ash Wednesday, Religion, and Joy.
Rocco mentions one of the most delightfully eccentric and winsome saints of all : St. Philip Neri.
"Some saints were known specifically for their sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, called “The Humorous Saint,” hung at his door a little sign: The House of Christian Mirth. “Christian joy is a gift from God flowing from a good conscience,” Neri said."
Neri was the only saint we know of who had a joke book and a Bible beside his bed. He began his apostlate as a lay man and later become a priest and founded the Oratorians. Many of the practices associated with Neri's Oratory, for many years a gathering of lay men before it became a community of priests, are remarkable for their spontaneity and directness.
Louis Boyer (who was an Oratorian) wrote in The Roman Socrates: A Protrait of St. Philip Neri,
"The program of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of some saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did. He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench facing the gathering.
We have already compared one of Philip's activities to those of the Salvation Army; the same comparison holds good for these informal meetings.
Generally speaking, the pattern followed by Evangelist meetings, invented as is supposed by Anglo-Saxon revivalists of the eighteenth century, was no more than a repetition of this Roman priest's experiment in the sixteenth century. We find the same spontaneity, jealously suspicious of any rule which might bridle inspiration or lead to formalism, the same outburst of sensible fervor, above all the same attempt to return to the Gospels and make them available to everyone."
It was Neri and the confraternity that he founded who introduced the 40 hours Devotion to Rome, accompanying Adoration with continuous prayer and spontaneous feverini. Whever Neri went, music followed, but especially the Laudi, venacular hymns of praise. Palestrina, who was one of Neri's disciples, wrote many Laudi for the Oratory. It was Neri who instituted the pilgrimage to the seven churches of Rome as an alternative to Mardi Gras - but typically, he inserted a picnic and live music into the pilgrimage.
Frederick Faber, who joined the English branch of the Oratorians to which John Henry Newman also belonged, wrote in his life of Neri:
"He looked like other men.. he was emphatically a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it -- in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and a very various information." Accordingly, he was ready to meet the needs of his day to an extent and in a manner which even the versatile Jesuits, who much desired to enlist him in their company, did not rival; and, though an Italian priest and head of a new religious order, his genius was entirely unmonastic and unmedieval; he was the active promoter of vernacular services, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer, and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private devotion."