Prophet of Christian Joy
Atranquil evening was drawing to a close in the Eternal City. After another day of valiantly guiding the Barque of Peter, the Supreme Pontiff was taking a repose before returning to his post at the first sign of dawn.
However, not everyone was resting on that early daybreak in 1544. The famous Via Appia, long ago trodden by the sentries of Caesar and by Christians seeking the refuge of the catacombs, now echoed with the footsteps of humble, 29-year-old Philip Neri. After walking roughly three kilometres, he reached thestaircase of the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, his preferred place for prayer and recollection.
The “Pentecost” of St. Philip
The Church was in the throes of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century. The sessions of the Council of Trent were being prepared in the city of that name and the Christian world had reached a historical crossroads, the outcome of which was uncertain. From within this perspective, and from the depths of those humid and dark passages, Philip raised a prayer to Heaven, which seemed to blend with the cry of the martyrs: “Send forth Thy Holy Spirit Lord, and renew the face of the earth.”
As he prayed, he felt his heart swell with “great and unexpected joy, a joy stemming from divine love, but stronger and more fervent than anything he had previously experienced.” (1) At that moment, a ball of fire—symbol of the Holy Spirit—shone before him, entered his mouth and settled in his heart. In an instant, he was seized by an extraordinary love and enthusiasm for divine things, as well as a singular capacity for transmitting them. His physical constitution, unable to contain the force of this supernatural action, miraculously adapted to it: his heart grew in size and sought space between his fourth and fifth rib; his ribs, in turn, obediently complied by arching to provide room.
This miracle, which occurred on the eve of Pentecost, has become known as “the Pentecost of St. Philip Neri,” and the fruits it produced were not long in coming. “Thus it was that this man, admirable for his kindness, conviction and ardent charity, began this holy social renewal which would restore the people of Italy; a sublime work of humility, patience and dedication which he carried out during his life, and which his congregation so gloriously continued afterwards.” (2)
A unique vocation
Philip Romulus Neri was born in a poor neighbourhood of Florence on July 22, 1515. When he was 18, his father, Francesco Neri, sent him to an uncle’s home in San Germano to learn the merchant trade. Leaving behind the beautiful city of his birth, he took with him only the treasure of religious formation received from the Dominicans of St. Mark’s Convent. Throughout his life, he would repeat, “Everything good I have, I received from the Fathers of St. Mark’s.” (3)
Yet, his vocation was not to be found in commerce. Dissatisfied with the prospect of profitgained today and lost tomorrow, he yearned to store up treasure in Heaven, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6:20). He departed for Rome the following year, leaving behind his uncle and all business affairs.
The question of an “official” vocation did not occur to this youth, who had already abandoned himself to God. At that time, he did not desire to be a priest, nor enter a monastery or any other ecclesial institution. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find anyone more devout than Philip, among the clergy or in the cloisters and friaries of that age. From his youth, he tended to evade typical parameters and expectations, demonstrating that the only rule perfect in itself is charity, and the only discipline of any value is that based on obedience to Jesus Christ.
He maintained an admirable spiritual life in the world. Housed by a Florentine noble, Philip spent several years in the Eternal City in solitude, prayer and harsh penance. He was an avid visitor to the holy sites of Ancient Rome and spent long hours in prayer. Some years later, he felt drawn to study Philosophy and Theology. The masters of the Sapienza and the Augustinian Studium were astounded at the intellectual capacity of this man who lived like a pauper.
These fruitful years of study would serve him well throughout life, and win him fame for his wisdom, considered equal to that of the greatest theologians of the time. St. Thomas Aquinas was his model and the Summa Theologica his bedside book.
He spread the joy of sanctity
It was not long before all of Rome was abuzz with the holiness of life of this pilgrim. Firmly established in virtue by the long period of recollection, he felt the time was ripe to begin his evangelizing work. He preferred the poorest areas, and “in all the neighbourhoods, even the worst ones, he preached outdoors to receptive audiences and obtained extraordinary conversions.” (4) His formula for addressing a sinner, wherever he met one, consisted in placing a hand on his shoulder, and saying: “Brother, is it today that we begin to do good?” (5)
Gifted with great personal appeal, Philip Neri radiated the joy of sanctity wherever he went, of which the fleeting satisfaction derived from sin is but a sorry caricature. Everyone wanted to approach him and share in his overflowing love of God. Youths pressed around him to hear him speak of the things of Heaven, raising a noisy clamour in their enthusiasm. Philip had a simple reply for a cantankerous onlooker who objected to the din: “They are committing no sin!” (6) Indeed, this lay apostle’s novel methods of evangelization permitted everything except sin and sadness.
The friendship between two saints
Philip dedicated himself to an untiring apostolate at the bedside of the sick, and led many of the dying from despair to a holy death. In 1548, together with his professor, Persiano Rosa, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity, for the care of the sick and pilgrims.
His virtue caught the eye of St. Ignatius of Loyola who repeatedly invited him to join the Company of Jesus. Philip, however, preferred to remain a pietoso lazzarone (pious beggar).
Impressed by the number of people who embraced the consecrated life through Philip’s words, St. Ignatius nicknamed him “the Bell” saying: “Just as the parish bell calls everyone to church while remaining in its place, this apostolic man brings others to the religious life while he remains outside.” (7) For his part, Philip—who felt called to inspire religious vocations, yet not embrace one himself—admired the convert of Manresa, and declared that every time he looked upon the countenance of St. Ignatius, it was as resplendent as an angel of light. Such was the friendship of these two saints!
“Rome will be your India”
Although the founder of the Jesuits could not convince Philip to join the Company, his spiritual son, Francis Xavier, awakened in the pietoso lazzarone a longing to go to India, to conquer more souls for Christ.
The letters of the Apostle of the Orient won an enthusiastic following in the Roman ecclesiastical setting. To his closest disciples in the apostolate—the future priests of the Congregation of the Oratory, which he would found in 1575—Philip referred to these narratives from India, lamenting: “What a shame there are so few labourers to gather such a harvest! Why do we not also go to help them?” 8
Through insistent prayer, they implored supernatural insight regarding a possible expedition. The response came through a Cistercian abbot of Tre Fontane, whom St. Philip had consulted: “Rome will be your India.”9 Our Saint understood by this that his vocation was to be a missionary in the Eternal City, where the sufferings, fatigue and sacrifices which awaited him were perhaps even greater than those he would have found in India.
The pilgrimage to the seven churches
On May 23, 1552, at age 36, Philip Neri was ordained a priest, and began carrying out, as a minister of the Lord, the works of His vineyard. In the exercise of his priestly ministry, he and his poor disciples were joined by nobles, bourgeois, artists and cardinals. St. Philip’s main method of attracting followers was the truly original “pilgrimage to the seven churches.”
The “pilgrimage” itinerary began in St. Peter’s Basilica, where, after a spiritual reading, he gave a doctrinal explanation. The participants meditated on the topic and discussed it, and Father Philip provided a conclusion. Then everyone moved on to St. Paul’s Basilica singing hymns and psalms. When they reached St. Paul’s, they heard a conference on Church History, the lives of the saints or the Bible. The program continued in this fashion until noon, when the participants attended Mass and received Communion in the Church of St. Sebastian or St. Stephen.
A meal was served afterwards in the surrounding gardens, animated by St. Philip’s contagious joy. The “pilgrimage” then recommenced with another musical procession, and stopped at other sacred sites. The number of conversions that resulted far surpassed all expectations.
Members of prominent families, such as the Medicis and Borromeos, mingled with orphaned children and humble artisans in this exercise, which, due to its fervour, rebuked lukewarm Christians and invited them to conversion. The number of pilgrims journeying together on one day reached a thousand, among whom could be counted four future Popes—Gregory XIII, Gregory XIV, Clement VIII and Leo XI—as well as the brilliant composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. However, St. Philip gave little importance to position and talent if he discerned that the ugliness of sin had a foothold in souls. He made it his mission to purify his followers and make them humble, whoever they happened to be.
At the end of the day, with the mediation in St. Mary Major Basilica having drawn to a close, everyone returned home filled with good resolutions and, even more importantly, with the strength to fulfil them.
Some historians who portray the figure of our admirable saint have described him in imprecise terms, as if he were a comedian, interested only in winning smiles with his wit. In reality, the joy of this supernatural man stemmed from his union with God: an interior sense of the consoling presence of the Holy Spirit and the power to communicate it to the world. He was convinced that being in a state of grace was a boon greater than any other treasure. Reflection on the divine mysteries gave him immense happiness, and from this sprang the uniqueness of his evangelizing work.
His attractive and lively methods were invariably employed with discretion and timeliness and were always aimed at showing down and rooting out error, promoting virtue, and at times, hiding his own sanctity and supernatural gifts. For example, if a penitent omitted a sin in confession, he would say: “Suchand- such a sin is missing.” but when asked: “How did you know I also committed that sin?”, his answer would be: “By the colour of your hair!”10 In this way, he deflected attention from the gift of discernment of spirits bestowed on him by Providence.
Philip was an uncontested miracle-worker, and people readily associated these wonders to the efficacy of his prayers. To avoid garnering praise, he made use of a large pouch, which he said contained precious relics. He would touch the sick with it, and when someone was cured, he attributed the fact to the power of the relics. This argument persuaded many, until one day a great discovery was made: the pouch was empty!
On one occasion, a serious misunderstanding arose between two priests from the Oratory, and they did not want to reconcile. Philip called them, and in the name of holy obedience, ordered each one to dance and sing a folk tune for the other. In the process of this singular demonstration, their reconciliation was achieved.
During one “pilgrimage to the seven churches,” St. Philip noticed a certain noblewoman who flaunted an ostentatious dress, jewels and an immense coiffure. Noting that the lady was more concerned with herappearance than with the things of God, the saint placed his own spectacles on the tip of her nose. The public broke into laughter. She took the lesson to heart, and devoutly finished a spiritual exercise that she had begun frivolously.
It would be possible to recount an almost endless series of similar episodes, all of them surprising and filled with wit and candour.
“Behold the source of all my joy!”
St. Philip Neri departed from this world at eighty years of age. According to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, he lived at a time in which “the Church experienced an unprecedented flourishing— or better yet, a ‘true concentration’—of saints, who for number and quality are difficult to find repeated in the history of the Church.”11 In this context, our saint played a key role.
His love of the Holy Church, his ardent devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Virgin, along with his readiness to serve his neighbour, produced abundant fruits. He endured untold sufferings due to weak health, persecutions and jealousies, while ever maintaining a heroic smile. On the day of his death, May 26, 1595, he celebrated Mass, heard several confessions, and shared his last hours with the fathers of the Oratory.
Upon receiving Viaticum, he pronounced these words, which sum up his life: “Behold the source of all my joy!” (12)
The Congregation that he founded, innovative from so many perspectives, assumed the mission of continuing his work based on charity, exempt from rigid rules that could limit an evangelizing work to be carried out in world, for the good of souls immersed in temporal preoccupations.
As an eloquent testimony to St. Philip’s “Pentecost”, his two arched ribs are preserved to this day. One is kept in the Oratory in Rome and the other in Naples. These precious relics seem to proclaim to his spiritual sons and all souls called to apostolic activity: Those who let their hearts be shaped by the action of the Holy Spirit will truly collaborate in renewing the face of the earth.
1- CAPECELATRO, CO, Alfonso. The Life of Saint Philip Neri: Apostle of Rome. 2.ed. London: Burns & Oates, 1894, p.127.
2- GUÉRIN, Paul. Le petit bollandistes. 7.ed. Paris: Bloud et Barral, 1876, v.VI, p.210.
3- PRODI, Paolo. Filippo Néri. In: Il grande libro dei santi. San Paolo: Cinisello Balsamo, 1998, v.I, p.684.
4 -DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. A Igreja da Renascença e da Reforma – A Reforma Católica. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1999, p.141.
5- Idem, ibidem.
6- GUÉRIN. Op. cit., p.213.
7- Idem, p.212.
8- Idem, p.213.
9- GALLONIO, CO, Antonio. The Life of Saint Philip Neri. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005, p.57.
10- DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. Op. cit., p.140.
11- BAGNASCO, Angelo. Testimonianze. In: Annales Oratorii, Roma: 2007, n.6.
12 GUÉRIN. Op. cit., p.219.