1515 – 1595
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
St. Philip Neri often begged alms from his wealthy friends and acquaintances to redistribute to needy street children. On one occasion, he approached a friend, held out his hand, and asked him, once again, for a few coins: “How about some help for the children.” The man slapped him hard across the face. St. Philip quickly recovered from the shock, extended his cupped hand again, and said “That was for me, now how about something for the children?”
St. Philip was born into a well educated, Catholic, middle class home. He carried himself all his life with the bearing of an amiable, well read, finely dressed, shrewd individual who knew no enemies. After growing up in Florence, he moved to Rome and spent many years as a layman studying theology and helping the poor in practical ways. He befriended the great reformer St. Ignatius of Loyola, who desired that Philip become a Jesuit. While still a layman, Philip Neri founded a group to care for the many impoverished pilgrims who came to Rome. After encouragement from his confessor, he was ordained a priest in 1551. Soon afterwards, he had to formalize the large following that wanted to live more fully the life he preached and modeled.
St. Philip was so well loved and so well known in Rome that he is sometimes called its “Third Apostle” after St. Peter and St. Paul. His personality radiated a natural warmth, cordiality, and love of God. His priestly ministry could be fairly characterized as “evangelization by walking around.” He walked the streets of Rome from end to end continually throughout his long life. His life was a long conversation with a thousand characters on street corners, in shops, factories, at church, in parks, …wherever. He reached out to the destitute, prostitutes, poor children, and the uneducated. Saint Philip would often gather a group to visit seven churches in a row. As they went from one church to another, the group would picnic and listen to the musicians whom St. Philip brought along for entertainment. These outings, understandably, became hugely popular.
Leaders, intellectuals, musicians, and scholars were also drawn to him, in addition to common folk, and formed the impressive circle of committed Catholics who first joined his apostolic efforts. Saint Philip and his companions were given charge of a parish where they held evening sessions filled with song, readings from the lives of the martyrs, the praying of the psalms, and rich conversation. Saint Philip called these gatherings the “oratory,” in part because the participants also listened to musical pieces called “oratorios.” So when it came time to formalize his newly founded community in Church law, the name “Oratory” was chosen. The Congregation of the Oratory, which is still thriving today, was recognized by the Holy Father in 1575 and given the magnificent, new parish of Santa Maria in Varicella, known as Chiesa Nuova (The New Church), in the heart of Rome. Oratorians are mostly diocesan priests and some laymen who live together in a loose brotherhood, taking no vows, while pursuing various individual ministries. The many dozens of oratories around the world are joined in a confederation more informal than the tight canonical bonds which tie together the houses of a religious order.
St. Philip is one of the bright lights of the Counter Reformation. He blazed a new path, like other reformers. But the new path was really just the old path, walked differently. Saint Philip was the silent observer, the cheerful listener, the priest always there, who spoke hard truths but bent on the non-essentials. He mortified himself but never talked about it. He was poor, but wore nice clothes. He looked like everyone else, yet…. there was that intangible something: his polish, his lively concern, his clever wit, his courtesy, his wide education, his humor, and his constant turning of the conversation back to God. He was like everyone else, but he wasn’t, really. He radiated what twentieth century psychologists would call the “halo effect.” Everyone saw the invisible halo casting a glow over Saint Philip, and people crowded around to stand in his mellow light.
St. Philip did not start a university, reform an institution, write a classic, or formulate a new rule. He changed the world the only way it can truly be changed—one soul at a time. This army of one was canonized in 1622. His body rests in a glass coffin in Chiesa Nuova, the sumptuous Mother Church of the Oratory, where pilgrims come in faith, kneel before him, and seek his powerful intercession.
St. Philip Neri, your good nature and charm, united with your theological orthodoxy and life of deep prayer, made you a powerful apostle for the people of Rome. May all evangelists, especially priests, see in your openness to others a pathway of changing the world.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
PHILIP was one of the noble line of Saints raised up by God in the sixteenth century to console and bless His Church. After a childhood of angelic beauty the Holy Spirit drew him away from Florence, the place of his birth, showed him the world, that he might freely renounce it, led him to Rome, modelled him in mind and heart and will, and then, as by a second Pentecost, came down in visible form and filled his soul with light and peace and joy. He would have gone to India, but God reserved him for Rome. There he went on simply from day to day, drawing souls to Jesus, exercising them in mortification and charity, and binding them together by cheerful devotions; thus, unconsciously to himself, under the hands of Mary, as he said, the Oratory grew up, and all Rome was pervaded and transformed by its spirit. His life was a continuous miracle, his habitual state an ecstasy. He read the hearts of men, foretold their future, knew their eternal destiny. His touch gave health of body; his very look calmed souls in trouble and drove away temptations. He was gay, genial, and irresistibly winning; neither insult nor wrong could dim the brightness of his joy.
Philip lived in an atmosphere of sunshine and gladness which brightened all who came near him. “When I met him in the street,” says one, “he would pat my cheek and say, ‘Well, how is Don Pellegrino?’ and leave me so full of joy that I could not tell which way I was going.” Others said that when he playfully pulled their hair or their ears, their hearts would bound with joy. Marcio Altieri felt such overflowing gladness in his presence that he said Philip’s room was a paradise on earth. Fabrizio de Massimi would go in sadness or perplexity and stand at Philip’s door; he said it was enough to see him, to be near him. And long after his death it was enough for many, when troubled, to go into his room to find their hearts lightened and gladdened. He inspired a boundless confidence and love, and was the common refuge and consoler of all. A gentle jest would convey his rebukes and veil his miracles. The highest honors sought him out, but he put them from him. He died in his eightieth year, in 1595, and bears the grand title of Apostle of Rome.
Reflection.—Philip wished his children to serve God, like the first Christians, in gladness of heart. He said this was the true filial spirit; this expands the soul, giving it liberty and perfection in action, power over temptations, and fuller aid to perseverance.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.