Daylight dawned in Rome, and a hooded figure cut across the alleyways from the Cathedral of St. Mary Major. He darted past buildings ravaged ten years earlier, in 1527, when the city was attacked and sacked. Now, another kind of warfare saw clashing forces battling for people’s minds and hearts.
Many people, awed by Renaissance achievements in art and science, had come to mistrust religion and look to human wisdom and ability apart from God. There was corruption in the Church—a love of luxury and power. Renewal was underway, but some reformers were harsh, ready to find heresy in every corner. It was a time of rapid change and jarring extremes: flamboyant, opulent lifestyles and ribald entertainment on the one hand; severe intellectualism and overzealous pursuit of orthodoxy on the other.
But the cloaked figure seemed oblivious to all this. Reaching into his hood, he drew out his meager breakfast of bread and olives and approached some workers on the street. “Well, brothers,” he asked with a twinkle in his eye, “when shall we start to do good?”
In this cheerful, disarming way, Philip Neri was embarking on a sixty-year ministry that transformed the spiritual climate of Rome and continues to bring renewal to the whole Church.
Not Just a Friendly Fellow. The paint was barely dry on the fresco of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling when Philip Neri was born in 1515. Already, his world was turbulent. Florence, his native city, was under the thumb of the powerful Medicis, and the seeds of the Protestant Reformation were soon to burst forth. Philip’s home life also was unsettled. His mother died when he was only five, and his father was plagued with financial woes. Yet Pippo buono (good little Phil) always displayed a happy, mischievous, and winning nature.
Because he was also drawn to prayer, his naturally affable temperament was gradually fanned into a flame of love for Jesus. By his late teens, Neri had renounced the prospect of a lucrative occupation as a merchant and had moved to Rome, where he lived simply and supported himself by tutoring. He spent his nights praying, often in the catacombs or in one of the city’s venerable “Seven Churches.” But Philip was no hermit. The more intensely he felt God’s love, the more he was drawn to share it through works of service and evangelism. His nights of prayer were almost always followed by days in the streets reaching out to people—“leaving Christ for Christ’s sake,” he called it.
With no method or destination in mind, Philip wandered about talking to shopkeepers and customers, asking students about their studies and visiting hospital patients. He made people smile by his jokes, pranks, and trademark catchphrase “allegramente, allegramente!” (cheerfully, cheerfully). It was all to win them to Christ, because “it is much easier for a cheerful disposition to grow in holiness than a melancholy one!” Indeed, Philip’s own response to grace made him into a joyful evangelizer who drew others so magnetically to Jesus that friends called him “an electric eel.”
This magnetic effect became even stronger after Philip’s extraordinary “personal Pentecost” in 1544. He was in the catacombs of San Sebastian, praying for more gifts and grace from the Holy Spirit, when he suddenly saw a globe of fire enter his mouth and lodge in his heart. This remarkable vision, which was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of God’s love, marked Philip for life—and not just spiritually. From that point on, his heart beat so intensely when he prayed that other people could hear it. It also radiated a warmth that could convert and heal people through a simple hug. In more ways than one, Philip Neri was set on fire with the love of God.
Innovative Evangelist. Philip’s mystical experience inflamed his desire to follow new ideas and promptings inspired by the Holy Spirit. When his confessor urged him to become a priest, Philip resisted: he valued the freedom to pray and mingle among people as he felt led. St. Ignatius of Loyola, to whom Philip sent many young men for formation, said Philip was like a church bell, calling people to come in, but refusing to leave his belfry!
Finally, in 1551, after eighteen years of lay evangelization, Philip relented. Realizing that he might do more good if he could administer the sacraments, he decided to become a priest. Once ordained, he joined a loosely organized brotherhood of priests who lived together and served the poor at the Roman church of San Girolamo. There he spent hours—sometimes entire days and nights—in the confessional, leading people back to Christ. Gifted with supernatural insight, he made it a point to listen to the Spirit as he tailored his counsel to each person’s needs: he could be hard on one woman for inflating her mystical experiences but easy on another who was overly scrupulous about wearing fashionable high heels. “Just be careful not to fall,” Philip advised.
Fr. Philip knew, though, that Confession was just one step in a person’s path to Christ. To provide follow-up support, he began what became known as the Oratory: informal meetings in which people would pray, read Scripture, and explore the lives of the saints. He insisted that the discussions and talks be practical, not theoretical, and from the heart. In a move that was radical at the time, he encouraged laymen as well as priests and religious to speak on spiritual topics. He also surprised more traditional observers by using contemporary hymns—some of them composed by well-known musicians who attended the gatherings.
Sometimes the Oratory met outside. This gave rise to another innovative outreach: daylong pilgrimages to Rome’s Seven Churches. Designed as an alternative to the pagan carnivals in vogue, these festive outings featured preaching, prayer, music, cartloads of food—and, of course, Philip himself, laughing and joking. Popular and effective, the pilgrimages drew as many as four thousand people, among them scores who came to jeer but were touched by grace and converted instead.
All Eyes on Jesus. Over time, Philip became known and loved throughout Rome. But not everyone was charmed. Many high-placed prelates were mistrustful of his new ideas and pioneering practices; some accused Philip of being overly ambitious, proud, and ignorant—even heretical.
Although pained by this, Philip carried on—obedient to his confessor but without any fear or any attempt to appear more conventional. Even when he was being investigated by the Inquisition or receiving important visitors, he didn’t hesitate to crack jokes, deliberately mispronounce Latin words, or have his followers do rustic folk dances. Philip didn’t fear condemnation or scorn; what really frightened him was that people might take him for a saint.
Always on guard against pride, Philip readily poked fun at himself. As his renown grew, his self-deprecating antics became more far-fetched. He loved giving the impression that he was just an old fool. He sometimes walked through the streets wearing big white shoes, a cushion for a hat, and his cloak turned inside out. To teach his followers the same path of humility, he often gave them humorous penances. One convert from a noble family was tasked with carrying Philip’s fat old dog through the streets. Another who became a priest and was a little too proud of his first sermon was directed to preach it over and over until listeners thought he had nothing else to say. Anything to take people’s attention off the messengers of the gospel—beginning with himself—and to put it on Jesus.
The Message Is Mercy. For all his antics, what is most striking about Philip is that his humility and healthy mistrust of self went hand in hand with a holy confidence and boldness. He was convinced that God’s mercy could do the work of sanctifying and converting far better than his own ingenuity. He wasn’t afraid of the power of sin either. And so, instead of shunning disreputable characters, Philip approached them with trust that God would win them over. When a criminal slipped into the Oratory meeting one day, Philip welcomed him warmly and without sermonizing. He even brought him to a seat of honor. Later that evening, the fugitive tearfully confessed his sins and returned to the Church.
By the time Philip Neri died, on May 25, 1594, the spiritual climate of Rome had been renewed. And almost despite himself, he had founded a congregation of priests who now continue his work and joyful spirit in Oratories around the world.
Truly, Philip Neri was the saint who was needed for his troubled times. But he wasn’t the only one. During his lifetime, other men and women—saints with very different strengths and personalities—were also responding to God’s call. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits; Francis Xavier brought the gospel to the Far East; Teresa of Àvila reformed the Carmelites; Charles Borromeo tended plague victims and worked for Church reform at the highest levels; Camillus and his congregation reformed hospital health care.
And here too is a message about divine mercy. Just as God raised up a range of saints to meet the needs of Philip’s day, he is at work today, calling and empowering disciples of varying temperaments and abilities to renew the Church and convert the world. We don’t have to evangelize exactly as Philip Neri did. But confident that God has the overall picture in mind, we can turn to him, fall in love with him, and give his Spirit free rein to use our natural gifts for supernatural results.
Hallie Riedel is an editor for The Word Among Us .