“Ecco Filippone! Here comes the great Philip!” This was not an unfamiliar cry in the streets of sixteenth-century Rome as the local youth spotted Philip Neri strolling down the street with his friends in the late afternoon. Philip was hard to miss, with his large white shoes, rough coat and comical hat.
This was the priest who made them laugh, the one carrying a bunch of weeds and smelling them as if they were roses, the one wearing his clothes inside out. This priest—who brought the joy of the Lord to an entire city—was a much sought-after confessor by rich and poor alike, who miraculously healed the sick. This was the priest who read joke books before Mass in order to keep from going into ecstasies. This was the priest who, by following the Spirit’s promptings, spawned a religious revival and established a new religious congregation.
Yet when Philip Neri arrived in Rome at the age of 18 (in 1533), he had no plans other than to live the solitary life of a hermit. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he left a potentially lucrative business opportunity and went to a city strewn with the physical debris of recent warfare and the spiritual debris of a church caught up in luxury, intrigue, and political maneuvering.
The Beginning of a Vocation. Philip was a Florentine by birth. His mother died when he was only five years old, and he was raised by a loving step-grandmother. His father—a poor notary—sent Philip (at the age of 17) to live with his cousin in central Italy and become a merchant. The hope was that Philip would inherit the man’s business. Philip, however, was more attracted to the nearby Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino than to his job. Many were the evenings he spent in the abbey’s shadows, lost in prayer. Within a short time, he left for Rome, where he intended to live in peace and solitude.
Philip’s first few years in Rome were almost totally given over to prayer and study. Eventually, he sold his books because he couldn’t concentrate on anything in the classroom but the crucifix. Often he visited seven famous churches located in various parts of the city. Sometimes he spent the night lying on the floor of one of the churches, immersed in prayer. He loved to pray in the catacombs beneath the Church of San Sebastiano. There in the cool darkness, surrounded by the tombs of the early martyrs, Philip found the perfect environment for contemplating the sweetness of his Lord.
The Fire of the Spirit. It was in these catacombs, on the night before Pentecost (1544), that Philip experienced an extraordinary visitation of God: As he was absorbed in prayer, he saw a ball of fire enter his mouth and travel down to his heart. The sensation of intense heat—the all-consuming fire of God’s love—was so great that he threw himself on the ground to cool himself, pleading, “Enough, Lord, enough! I cannot take any more!” The experience not only filled him with joy, it also affected him physically. He would sometimes tremble and shake, and his heart would throb powerfully. The sensation of heat never left him, forcing him to go around with his cassock unbuttoned, even in winter. Many were healed simply by the warmth emanating from his breast.
Just as the heat was constant, so too was the joy of knowing God’s presence. Despite his efforts to avoid drawing attention to himself, Philip often found it difficult to hide his fervor. In later life, he often had to lean his elbows on the altar to keep from shaking during Mass. Some said that his entire body lifted off the floor. Yet Philip never thought of himself as better than others. If anything, he became more humble as he reflected on his sin and unworthiness.
As Philip drew closer to God, he was also drawn closer to others. He began to spend time on the streets of Rome, casually striking up conversations with people, looking for opportunities to share the gospel. He soon became a popular figure; his natural charm and joy were hard to resist.
While he was still a layman, Philip began working with different charitable organizations around Rome, caring for the poor in the city’s squalid hospitals, ministering to the patients’ physical and spiritual needs. One of these organizations—the Confraternity of Charity—was based in the Church of San Girolamo della Carita. It was here that Philip met Fr. Persiano Rosa, who became his spiritual director and close friend. Seeing Philip’s talent for caring for people, Rosa pressed him to become a priest, but Philip resisted. He didn’t think he deserved such an honor. Finally, out of obedience, Philip relented and was ordained at the age of thirty-six.
A Wise and Loving Confessor. Philip was immediately drawn to the ministry of reconciliation, and his reputation as an insightful and gifted confessor spread rapidly. Long lines began forming outside his confessional, and Philip would often remain there from daybreak until noon, when he would say Mass. Never wanting anyone to be turned away, Philip left the key to his door under the front mat for those who could only see him during the evening or late at night.
Philip encouraged people to come often, sometimes every day, and he used this regular contact to help guide them into a deeper relationship with God. His wisdom in the confessional was borne of experience and insight into human nature. Noble and wealthy men and women, laborers, merchants and peasants -- all sought him out because, through Philip, they encountered the mercy and compassion of the Lord. He was patient, kind and sympathetic, leading his penitents to freely unburden themselves of their sins. “Sympathy with those who have fallen is the best way of not falling oneself,” he would say.
Less concerned with externals than matters of the heart, Philip sought to bring Christ’s love and healing touch to anyone who came to him. To a woman who asked if she should continue to wear the high-heeled shoes that were fashionable at the time, Philip replied, “Just be careful you don’t fall.” He told those who wanted difficult penances: “If you absolutely must overdo something, then overdo meekness, obedience, and amiability, because all that is already good in itself.” When one man came to confession quite casually, Philip gave him a crucifix, then excused himself. He returned a short time later to find the man in tears, his heart pierced with the knowledge of his sin.
Many times, Philip knew what a person was gong to confess before a single word was spoken—leaving the person dumbfounded, humbled, and convinced of God’s mercy. He often surprised people with unexpected words and deeds, at one time even slapping a young man to shake him out of his over-scrupulous self-examinations. He sent wealthy people to hospitals to serve the poor and brought the downhearted out of their melancholy by his own joy and cheerfulness. Changing hearts one by one, Philip sparked a renewal in Rome.
The Beginnings of the Oratory. Concerned that the young men of his day were falling into sin through their aimless pursuits after work, Philip invited them to his room to pray, discuss scripture, and study the lives of the saints and church history. Again, to avoid emphasis on externals, he encouraged them to talk from the heart—not in a scholarly, overly-pious way. After several hours of prayer, spontaneous sermons, and discussion, the group took walks around the city. They were regularly followed by the curious, the faithful, and the suspicious.
Philip’s meetings became so popular that the group—called the “Oratory” or “little chapel”—soon moved to the church’s attic where they had more room. As the numbers swelled, the structure of the meetings became somewhat more formal, and some of the talks were prepared beforehand. Philip loved music, and often his beloved laudi—popular hymns from Florence—ended the sessions. At one point, the Oratory drew some well-known musicians—including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
In addition to his Oratory meetings, Philip continued his visits to the seven churches and soon had hundreds of followers. On Sundays and feast days, outdoor Oratories with music and picnicking attracted as many as 4,000 people. Philip managed to combine recreation and festivity with holiness, and his freedom of expression and humble love for the Lord affected the entire city. His pilgrimage at Lent, for example, proved a powerful antidote to the wild excesses of the Roman Carnival.
Philip’s great following attracted the attention of church authorities as well, and the reaction was not always positive. Some were concerned about the practice of permitting laymen to preach sermons, and there was some criticism that laypeople should not receive the sacraments as frequently as Philip advocated. At one point, Pope Paul IV’s vicar general ordered Philip to stop hearing confessions—a painful ordeal for him. However, the vicar general died shortly afterward, and the Pope made his peace with Philip. Through all the questions, suspicions, and accusations, Philip maintained an inner peace and prayed for his persecutors.
The Beginnings of a Brotherhood. A community soon grew up around Philip’s Oratory, with his devoted followers living out the life of service to others that Philip had initiated. In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII gave the Oratory its own church near the papal court and issued a bull officially establishing it as a congregation. Always the individualist, however, Philip had no thoughts of setting up a conventional order. During the years it took to finalize the rule and government of the congregation, Philip forbade the members from taking vows. Their only bond, he said, should be a bond of love.
As Philip grew older, his eccentric humor came into full force. Insistent that he not be held in awe because of his extraordinary gifts, he took every opportunity to play the fool. Once, at a solemn church ceremony, he went up to a member of the Swiss Guard and playfully tugged on his beard. He sometimes ordered his disciples to carry out similar jokes on themselves as a way of teaching them humility and obedience. One of his more famous followers, Francesco Tarugi, was ordered to carry Philip’s old dog Capriccio during the Oratory’s pilgrimages through the streets. When Capriccio died, Tarugi wrote a sonnet celebrating his liberation from the dog.
Much of Philip’s last years were spent in solitude and prayer. Daily Mass in his private chapel would often take hours, as he became lost in adoration of the Lord. At times, Philip would be so overcome with love for God that he could scarcely preach.
He was afflicted by poor health for many years, and died on May 26, 1595. He was canonized in 1622, along with four of his contemporaries: Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, and Isidore the Farmer. Romans joked that on that day the Pope canonized four Spaniards and one saint.
By the time of Philip’s death, seven oratories had sprung up in Italy and, in time, Oratorian congregations spread throughout the world. Philip Neri had entered Rome to live a quiet life as a hermit, but the Lord had other plans for him. Known as the “apostle to Rome,” Philip left his imprint on his adopted city and on the world by reflecting the love, joy and humility of Christ.
Excerpted from A Great Cloud of Witnesses (The Word Among Us Press, 1998).