Saint Philip Neri

Saint Philip Neri was born in Florence in 1515 and was educated by the Dominican friars. In his late teens, he was sent to live with an uncle at San Germano near the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, where he was meant to become heir to his uncle’s business. He would often go to the Benedictine Abbey and here gained a deep love for the liturgy and the wisdom of the desert fathers. His heart, being unsatisfied with running his uncle’s business, and instead wanting to pursue the things of God, he left San Germano for Rome at the age of eighteen.

Once in Rome, Philip lived as a layman for twenty years or so. He was given room and board with a family in exchange for tutoring the children. This gave him much free time for prayer and study about God, attending lectures in theology by the Augustinians. He was want to go and pray at the catacombs of St Sebastian, and on the Feast of Pentecost in 1544, the Holy Spirit descended on him as a ball of fire and lodged in his heart. From this time onwards, Philip always felt his heart to be filled with great heat.

While a layman, Philip would go about Rome encouraging people to raise their minds and hearts to God. He helped popularise the 40 Hours Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He organised many works of charity such as caring for the sick and pilgrims who came to Rome. In his humility, he did not seek to be ordained, but in obedience, he submitted to his confessor’s wishes and was ordained at the age of thirty-six.

St Philip began to hold informal discourses on the things of God, originally taking place in his room, now being moved to daily sermons given in a small chapel built for the purpose. This chapel, called an Oratory, would come to give the name to the community, who under St Philip, would give themselves to this apostolate. By 1575, these afternoon exercises featured four talks on different topics such as theology, the lives of the Saints, and Church History, and these would be interspersed with music.

Philip thought it was important that these sermons be given a colloquial and familiar style so that people, whether educated or uneducated, could understand them, and profit spiritually from them. They were attended by cardinals, nobles, tradesmen, and even those beyond what was considered respectable society. Many of these same people frequented the Oratory for regular Confession. He counselled his penitents to put their faith into practice by visiting the sick and helping the poor.

At this time in Rome, the yearly carnivals had become events of sinful excess. To keep people away from the carnival, he started the Seven Church Pilgrimage, which went to Rome’s most renowned churches. He would also take large numbers of people to just outside of Rome to enjoy picnics, spiritual discourses, and music. He would often have simple hymns and songs composed that were easy for people to sing along with.

St Philip knew that humility was necessary for sanctity, and the best kind of mortification to acquire this virtue was the mortification of the will rather than external kinds of penances such as hair shirts. St Philip would then encourage the kind of mortifications that help us think less of ourselves, such as having one of his penitents, Tarugi, carry around the streets of Rome, Capriccio, a very large dog. Or on another occasion, instructing others to wear a hairshirt over their clothes rather than under them. He also could be found making a fool of himself, such as going up to a Swiss Guard and stroking his beard!

Even though St Philip tried to hide his sanctity, stories of his holiness began to spread throughout Rome. He was known for his great wisdom and insight. St Philip was associated with many miracles throughout his life.

Philip died in 1595, and in recognition of his known sanctity, he was canonised shortly after in 1622.