Humour & Humility: St Philip Neri
The true way to advance in holy virtues is to persevere in a holy cheerfulness.
If you wish to go to extremes, let it be in sweetness, patience, humility, and charity.
~ St Philip Neri
St Philip Neri’s feast is usually celebrated on the 26th of May. A friend of St Ignatius of Loyola, and the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, known as the Oratorians, St Philip is called the third Apostle of Rome after Sts Peter and Paul.
Born in a poor family, though related to Italian nobility, Philip was a pious young lad tutored by the Dominicans in the humanities. He often went to the Dominican chapel to pray. Receiving a vision that he was called to Rome, he left everything behind and went.
Working as a tutor while studying philosophy and theology, Philip began to settle into the Eternal City. After awhile, thinking his studies were interfering with his prayer life, he decided to sell all his books and gave the money to the poor.
A Fresh Start
Cast yourself into the arms of God and be very sure that if He wants anything of you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.
~ St Philip Neri
Instead of scholarly pursuits, Philip started visiting and tending to sick and impoverished pilgrims. He gathered a group of people to engage in this charitable work, while living as a lay hermit. This became the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity.
On the eve of Pentecost in 1544, Philip was praying in the catacomb of St Sebastian when he fell into a mystical ecstasy and experienced a vision of a globe of holy fire that entered his chest; he had the sensation of God’s overwhelming love. “Enough, enough Lord, I can bear no more!” he cried. After his death, the doctor found that two of his ribs had bowed further outwards and he had a physically enlarged heart.
Philip longed to be of service to God and man. He thought of joining the Jesuits in their mission to India. However, he received visions telling him that his place was in Rome. Though it was the mighty centre of Christendom, it was also full of the poor, lacking education and catechesis. He was advised that he could do even more good as a priest, so he entered the seminary.
Ordained to the priesthood in 1551, Fr Philip spent hours hearing confessions. Like Padre Pio, he could read souls and tell penitents what sins they needed to confess. Fr Philip also began ministering to the youth, finding safe places for them to engage in play.
Pope Gregory XIV tried to make him a cardinal, but Fr Philip declined. He established the Congregation of the Oratory in 1575, a group of priests and lay brothers dedicated to preaching and teaching. They live together in a community bound together by no formal vows, but only with the bond of charity, emulating the first disciples of Christ. Today, there are eighty-six Congregations of the Oratory across the world.
Saint of Joy
A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.
~ St Philip Neri
Fr Philip became so popular that he was accused of creating his own sect. Thankfully, he was cleared of this false allegation. He was aware of how people were setting him on a pedestal, and took steps to dispel their adulation of him, doing all sorts of silly things to emphasise his humanity and make others stop venerating him as a living saint. He wanted all their attention and the glory to be directed to God alone.
Among other things, Fr Philip was found reading a joke book when dignitaries came to see him; he neatly shaved off half his beard when invited to a party for the elite, embarrassing the host, who had wanted to bask in the reflection of his fame as a holy man; and wore funny large white shoes while out and about. When a novice was far too serious, Fr Philip stood on his head, to make him laugh.
He applied these lessons to others as well. When some of his more self-important, pompous penitents made their confessions, he imposed deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat.
Pope John Paul II observed, “It is the laws of the Gospel and the commandments of Christ that lead to joy and happiness: this is the truth proclaimed by St Philip Neri to the young people he met in his daily apostolate. His was a message dictated by the intimate experience he had of God especially in prayer…
“He did not choose the life of solitude; but, in exercising his ministry among the common people, he also wished to be ‘salt’ for all those who met him. Like Jesus, he was equally able to enter into the human misery present in the noble palaces and in the alleys of Renaissance Rome.”
May we learn from St Philip to serve and evangelise wherever God has placed us, in our local communities; and to maintain a joyful disposition as far as possible, trusting fully in God’s providence and recognising our humble status as His creatures.
St Philip Neri’s life story is beautifully depicted in the 2010 movie I Prefer Heaven – an excellent film to watch and discuss with your family or class.
Prayer to St Philip Neri
O holy St Philip Neri, patron saint of joy,
you who trusted Scripture’s promise
that the Lord is always at hand
and that we need not have anxiety about anything,
in your compassion heal our worries and sorrows
and lift the burdens from our hearts.
We come to you as one whose heart swells
with abundant love for God and all creation.
Hear us, we pray, especially in this need (make your request).
Keep us safe through your loving intercession,
and may the joy of the Holy Spirit which filled your heart, St Philip,
transform our lives and bring us peace. Amen.