Saints and Theology of the Heart - St. Philip Neri

Founder of the Oratory and Apostle of Rome

Feast: May 26

"How is it possible that someone who believes in God could love something outside of Him?"
"Oh Lord, who are so adorable and have commanded me to love you, why have you given me only one heart, and such a poor one at that?"

Man looks for happiness, but he is never able to give it to himself in this world.  Happiness is the supernatural fruit of the presence of God in a soul.  This is the happiness of the Saints.  They lived in the most adverse circumstances and neither anything nor anyone can lead them away from the Lord.  Saint Philip Neri illustrates admirably the happiness of holiness.  Doing everything for Christ, he achieved marvelous things and the glory of heaven.

Early years
He was born in Florence, Italy, in 1515, one of the four children of Fracesco and Lucretia Neri.  He lost his mother very early but his father’s second wife was a true mother for them. From a young age Philip was very likeable, obedient and loved to pray.  In his youth he enjoyed visiting the Dominican priests of the Monastery San Marco and, according to his own testimony, these priests inspired him to live the virtues in his daily life. 

At the age of 17 he was sent to San Germano, near Monte Cassino, as an apprentice to Romolo, a merchant cousin of his father.  His stay there was not very long, but in little time Philip had a mystical experience which he would call later his “conversion” and, from this moment on, he lost his interest in business.  He left for Rome, without money and without any plan, trusting solely in Providence.  In the Eternal City he stayed in the house of a Florentine cutoms officer named Galeotto Caccia, who gave him a room and what he needed to eat in exchange for educating his two children, who (according to the testimony of their own mother and an aunt) behaved like angels under the direction of the Saint.  Philip did not need many things, although he was only fed once a day and his diet was reduced to bread, olives, and water.  In his room he had nothing besides a bed, a chair, a few books and a string on which to hang his clothes.

Outside of his time dedicated to teaching, Philip lived as an anchorite the two first years he spent in Rome, spending day and night in prayer. This period was one of interior preparation in which his spiritual life was fortified and his desire to serve God was confirmed.  At the end of these two years, Philip began to study philosophy and theology at la Sapienza and in Sant’Agostino.  He was very devoted to his studies, but nevertheless it was difficult for him because his mind was so absorbed in love for God, especially when contemplating the crucifix.  He understood that Jesus, source of all the wisdom of philosophy and theology, filled the soul in the silence of prayer.  After three years of studies, when tenacity and success with which he had worked caused a brilliant career to open up before him, Philip abruptly abandoned his studies.  Probably moved by a divine inspiration, he sold the majority of his books and consecrated himself to apostolic work. 

The religious life of the people of Rome left much to be desired, and grave abuses abounded within the Church; everyone recognized it but very Little was done to remedy the situation.  The Medicis governed the College of Cardinals, and as a result many of the cardinals behaved more like secular rulers rather that ecclesiastical ones.  The rebirth of the classical studies had substituted Christian ideals for pagan ones, leading to a weakening of the faith and a decline in morals.  The clergy had fallen into indifference, or into corruption; the majority of priests celebrated the Mass only rarely, allowing the Churches to go to ruin and neglecting the spiritual care of the faithful.  The people, for their part, had distanced themselves from God.  The work of Saint Philip Neri consisted in the re-evangelization of the city of Rome and he was so successful that he would come to be known as “the Apostle of Rome”.

His beginnings were small.  Philip went to the street or to the market to speak with the people, particularly with the employees of the Banks and shops in the Sant’Angelo neighborhood.  Since he was very nice and had a good sense of humor, it was not difficult work for him to hold a conversation, in the course of which he would insert some words about the love of God or of the spiritual state of those to whom he was speaking.  Thus he attained, little by little, many people who changed their lives.  The Saint was in the habit of greeting his friends with the words, “Well, brothers, when are we going to be better?”  If they asked him what they ought to do to be better, the saint would take them with him to care for the sick in hospitals and to visit the seven Churches, which was one of his favorite devotions. 

Philip dedicated his entire day to the apostolate;  however, in the afternoon he retired to solitude in order to enter into profound Prayer and, frequently, he would spend the night at the door of some Church, or in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian along the Appian Way. He was found in this exact place, on the vespers of Pentecost 1544, asking for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, when he saw a globe of fire descending from heaven that entered through his mouth and resting within his chest.  The saint felt himself possessed by such an enormous love of God that it seemed he was drowning.  He fell to the ground, and exclaimed with an accent of pain, “Enough, Lord.  Enough!  I cannot handle any more!”  When he regained full consciousness, he discovered that his chest was swollen, having a lump the size of a fist; it never caused him any pain.  From that time on, Saint Philip experienced so strongly the love of God that all his body felt it.  He often had to press upon his chest to relieve some of the ardor that consumed him; and he prayed for God to lessen his consolations so that he would not die of joy.  The palpitations of his heart were so strong that others could hear and feel them, especially years later when he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, or preached.  He also had a heavenly Splendor that emanated heat from his heart.  After his death, the autopsy revealed that he had two broken ribs and that they had been arched to make more room for the enlarged heart. 

Saint Philip, having received so much, was completely given to the corporal Works of mercy.  In 1548, with the help of Fr. Persiano Rossa, his confessor, who was living in San Girolamo della Carita and 15 laymen, Saint Philip founded the Confraternity of the Holy Trinity, known as the confraternity of the por, which met for spiritual exercises in the Church of San Salvatore in Campo. The confraternity, who were charged with caring for needy pilgrims, helped Saint Philip to spread the devotion of the 40 hours (Eucharistic devotion), during which he would give brief reflections full of love that moved all who Heard them.  God blessed the work of the confraternity and soon the celebrated hospital of Santa Trinita dei Pellegrini was founded; in the jubilee year of 1575, the members of the confraternity attended to 145,000 pilgrims there and were later entrusted with the care of the poor.

His confessor was persuaded that Philip would do even greater things if he received his priestly ordination.  Although the saint resisted, because of his humility, he followed the advice of his confessor.  On May 23, 1551 he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders at the age of 36.  He went to live with Fr. Rossi and other priests in San Girolamo della Carita. From this time, his apostolic work was in the confessional, where he sat from the early morning till the late afternoon, to attend to the multitudes of penitents of all ages and social standing.  The saint had the gift to read the souls of his penitents and attained many conversions.  He taught his penitents the value of mortification and practices that would help them grow in holiness. 
The Congregation of the Oratory (The Oratorians)
In 1563 Pope Pius IV asked Saint Philip to assume responsibility of the Church San Giovanni de los Florentinos. Three of his disciples were ordained who also went to this Church.  They lived and prayed in community, under the direction of Saint Philip.  The saint wrote a very simple rule for his Young followers, among whom was the future historian Baronius.  

With the blessing of Pope Gregory XII, Saint Philip and coworkers acquired, in 1575, their own Church, Santa María de Vallicella. The Pope formerly approvedthe Congregation of the Oratory.  They were unique in that they are secular priests that live in community but without vows.  The Institute had the goal of Prayer, preaching and the administration of the Sacraments. Though the congregation flourished very near the Vatican walls, the Institute did not recieve final recognition of their constitutions until 17 years after the death of their founder, in 1612. 

The Church Santa María in Vallicella was in ruins and was rather small.  Saint Philip was even warned in a vision that the Church was at the point of falling apart, only beingsustained by the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Saint decided to demolish it and to build a larger one.  The workers found that the central beam disconnected from any supports.  Under the direction of Saint Philip, excavation began in the place where the ancient foundation had been hidden.  These ruins provided the necessary foundation for a portion of the new church and sufficient stone for the rest of the base.  In less than two yearsthe fathers moved to the "Chiesa Nuova". The Pope, Saint Charles BOrromeo and other distinguished persons of Rome contributed to the work with generous donations.  They esteemed him for his great sense of humor and his humility, a virute that he tried to imbue in his followers.  

Extrordinary gifts
Saint Philip had the gift of healing, returning many sick people to health.  He lived in close contact with the supernatural and experienced frequent ecstasies.  Those who witnessed him in ecstasy gave testimony that his face shone with a heavenly light.  He always had a delicate health.  On one occasion, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared ot him and cured him of an illness of the gallbladder. 

Last years
During his final years there were many cardinals who had him as an adviser.  He suffered from several illnesses and two years before his death he renounced his duty as superior, entrusting the mission to Boronius. 

He received permission to celebrate the daily Mass in a small chapel that was adjoined to his room.  As he was frequently caught up in ecstasy during the Mass, those assisting began the custom of retiring during the “Agnus Dei”.  The acolyte did the same.  After putting out the candles, they would light a lamp and place a note on the door to announce that Saint Philip was still celebrating.  Two hours later the acolyte would return, light new candles and the Mass would continue. 

On the feast of Corpus Christi, May 25, 1595, the saint was overjoyed, so that the doctor told him that he had not seen him so well for the last 10 years.  But Saint Phiip knew perfectly well that his last hour had arrived.  He heard confessions the whole day and received visitors ads usual.  But before retiring for the night, he said, “After all, we must die". Around midnight he suffered such a strong attack that the whole community was called.  Baronius, after reading the prayers of the agonizing, asked that he bless his sons.  The saint, who could no longer speak, raised his hand to give the blessing and died a moment later.  He was 80 years old and left behind him an unfading work.  

Saint Philip was canonized in 1622. The incorrupt body of Saint Phillip is in the Church of Santa María en Vallicella, under the beautiful mosaic of his vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary of 1594.  




Return to the Main Page on the Saints...

logo SCTJM
Return to main page

This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary