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St. Philip Neri

St. Philip Neri by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist Narrative:

After a brief career in his native Florence, Philip Neri left the business world to pursue the spiritual longings of his heart in Rome. For seventeen years he lived a simple life as a layman there, gathering other young men around himself to pray and to help pilgrims and the sick. At 36 he was ordained a priest and was soon renowned as a skillful spiritual director and confessor. In an oratory built at San Girolamo, he continued to work with young men, sponsoring religious lectures and discussions, organizing work to help the suffering, and hosting performances of religious music, which evolved into what is now known as "oratorios." By 1575 he had formed the clergy who helped him in this work into the Congregation of the Oratory, a new form of Catholic religious life, whose members do not take the traditional vows.

Rome in Philip’s day was in a very demoralized state. First as a layman and then as a priest, he and his companions worked to restore a vigorous spirituality among the people of Rome.

He maintained that spiritual perfection was meant as much for lay people as for clergy and religious. He stressed love, gentleness, cheerfulness, and humility, rather than physical austerity. In time he became known as the "Apostle of Rome." St. Philip is known more than most saints for his cheerfulness and his sense of humor. Like the "holy fools" of the Orthodox Church, he often resorted to unconventional behavior -- such as shaving off half of his beard -- in order to make a point. Many were shocked by such behavior. In this icon he is shown with a small dog he filched from one of the cardinals in Rome. Arrogant young aristocrats who came to him for guidance often found themselves walking this little dog -- thus learning a bit of humility and sense of proportion. He told jokes and appreciated laughter.

His feast day is May 26.

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Though he was related to Italian nobility, Philip came from a poor family. His father, Francisco Neri, worked as a notary. Philip's brother died in childhood, but his two sisters, Caterina and Elisabetta survived. He was a pius youth, taught humanities by the Dominicans.

He moved to San Germano in 1533 to help some family with their business, and while there would escape to a local Dominican chapel in the mountains. He received word in a vision that he had an apostolate in Rome. Philip cut himself off from his family, and went there.

Befriended by Galeotto Caccia who took Philip in, and paid him to tutor his two sons. He wrote poetry in Latin and Italian. He studied philosophy and theology. When he tired of learning, he sold all his books and gave the money to the poor.

Philip began to visit and care for the sick, and impoverished pilgrims. He founded a society of like-minded folk to do the same. He was a friend of St. Ignatius. A layman, he lived in the city as a hermit. During Easter season of 1544, while praying in the catecomb of San Sebastiano, he received a vision of a globe of fire that entered his chest, and he experienced an ecstasy that physically enlarged his heart.

With Persiano Rose, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity. He began to preach, with many converts. In 1550 he considered retiring to the life of a solitary hermit, but received further visions that told him his mission was in Rome. Later he considered missionary work in India, but further visions convinced him to stay in Rome.

Philip entered the priesthood in 1551. He heard confessions by the hour. He could tell penitents their sins before they confessed, and had the gift of confering visions. He began working with youth, finding safe places for them to play, becoming involved in their lives.

Pope Gregory XIV tried to make him a cardinal, but Philip declined. His popularity was such that he was accused of forming his own sect, but was cleared of this baseless charge. He founded the Congregation of the Oratory, a group of priests dedicated to preaching and teaching, but which suffered from accusations of heresy because of the involvement of laymen as preachers. In later years he was beset by several illnesses, each of which was in turn cured through prayer.

"Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits."

—Saint Philip Neri

Born: July 22, 1515 at Florence, Italy

Died: May 26, 1595

Beatified: 1615 by Pope Paul V