St. Philip Neri was a Christian missionary and founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of Catholic priests and lay brothers. He was born in Florence on July 21st 1515, one of four children. From a very young age, Philip was known for being cheerful and obedient. He was affectionately referred to as "good little Phil." He received his early teachings from friars at the Dominican monastery in Florence, San Marco.
At 18-years-old, Philip went to live with a wealthy family member in San Germano. He was sent there to assist in - and possibly inherit - the family business. However, soon after his arrival, Philip experienced a mystical vision, which he eventually spoke of as his Christian conversion. This event was an encounter with the Lord and it dramatically changed his life. He soon lost interest in owning property or participating in business. He felt a call from the Holy Spirit to radically live for and serve Christ and His Church. Philip set out for Rome.
During his first two years in Rome, Philip lived a solitary life. He also dedicated a lot of time to prayer. In 1535, Philip began studying theology and philosophy at the Sapienza University and at St. Augustine's monastery. Although he was considered a "promising scholar," after three years of studies, Philip gave up thoughts of ordination and set out to help the poor people of Rome and to re-evangelise the city. He began talking to people on street corners and in public squares; he made acquaintances in places where people commonly gathered.
Philip, had a knack of starting up conversations and leading his listeners to consider a new and better way of life, the Christian Way. He easily caught others' attention with his warm personality and sense of humour. He encouraged groups of people to gather for discussions, studies, prayer and the enjoyment of music. His customary question was always, "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" Losing no time in converting good conversation to good actions, Philip would lead his followers to hospitals to wait on the sick or to the Church, to pray to and encounter the Lord. Philip loved to share the Gospel and help people to find or rediscover their faith in Christ. His days were dedicated to helping others, but his nights were set aside for solitude spent praying in church or in the catacombs.
In 1548, with the help of his confessor, Father Persiano Rossa, Philip founded a confraternity for poor laymen to meet for spiritual exercises and service of the poor, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity. Philip's appealing nature won him many friends from all levels of society, including later saints Ignatius of Loyola, Pius V and Charles Borromeo.
At 34-years-old, Philip had already accomplished much, but his confessor was determined that his work would be more effective as a priest. Finally convinced, Philip was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood on May 23rd 1551. From there, Philip went to live with Father Rossa and other priests at San Girolamo and carried on his mission, but mostly through the confessional. Philip spent hours sitting and listening to people of all ages. Sometimes Philip broke into informal discussions for those who desired to live a better life. He spoke to them about Jesus, the saints and the martyrs. Influenced by St. Francis Xavier, Philip thought of going to India to join the foreign mission field, but was dissuaded by his peers because Rome still needed Philip's ministry and influence. A large room was built above the church of San Girolamo to tend to Philip's growing number of pilgrims and other priests were called on to assist him. Philip and the priests were soon called the "Oratorians," because they would ring a bell to call the faithful to the oratory for prayer.
The foundation of the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory would be laid a few years later with members who encouraged others to deepen their faith. Philip's rule for them was simple - share a common table and to perform spiritual exercises. The Oratorians were officially approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575. The Congregation was given an ancient church, but Philip made the quick decision to demolish it because the structure was in ruins and the size was not large enough. He had plans of rebuilding on a larger scale. People from all over, including Charles Borromeo and Pope Gregory, contributed financially toward the rebuilding. By April 1577, the New Church was completed enough for the Congregation of the Oratory to be transferred there, but Philip stayed at San Girolamo for another seven years. Philip was constantly in a crowd of people; he allowed his followers free access to him and continued hearing confessions and engaging in ministry and prayer.
Philip was respected and loved throughout Rome; he became a trusted advisor to popes, kings, cardinals and equally as important to the poor. He whole-heartedly desired the reform of the Catholic Church and worked toward that with a sense of gentleness and friendship, rather than criticism and harshness. His efforts to reach out to the lay people of Rome made him one of the great figures in the Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church. He soon earned the title, "Apostle of Rome."
On the Feast of Corpus Christi, May 25, 1595, Philip was told by his physician that he was not healthy. He had not looked well for ten years. Philip realized his time had come to pass on to the Lord. For the remainder of the day, he listened to confessions and saw his visitors as normal. Before heading off to bed, Philip stated, "Last of all, we must die."
Around midnight of May 26th 1595, Philip suffered from a haemorrhage and passed away aged 80. His body lies in the New Church in Rome, where the Oratorians still serve. St. Philip Neri was beatified by Pope Paul V on May 11, 1615 and canonized by Pope Gregory XV on March 12, 1622. He is the patron saint of Rome, US Special Forces, humour and joy.
Reflection on Life of St. Philip Neri
St. Philip had a natural gift with people. His cheerful nature and good humour attracted people to him and this resulted in many people converting to Catholicism. They saw in Philip a person of Christ - one who always had time to listen, to advise, to sympathise, to hear their Confession, whatever it was that people needed Philip to be to them, he was that person. He had a great rapport with everyone he came into contact with. Meeting and greeting people with a smile and leaving them feeling uplifted afterwards was his trademark. He wrote a series of 'maxims' which were specific reflections for each day of the year and were intended as a guide to reaching holiness and perfection in everyday life. Here are some of them:
Let us strive after purity of heart, for the Holy Spirit dwells in candid and simple minds.
The Holy Spirit is the master of prayer, and causes us to abide in continual peace and cheerfulness, which is a foretaste of Paradise.
If we wish the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray, we must practise humility and obedience.
The fruit we ought to get from prayer, is to do what is pleasing to the Lord.
'Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore always try to be in good spirits'.
Philip’s morning prayer was: ‘Lord lay your hands on Philip today for if you don’t, Philip will betray you’.
Behold the humility of the saint and his awareness of his need for God.
St Philip Neri, Pray for us!