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Saint Philip Neri, Priest
May 26th

The Virgin Appearing to Saint Philip Neri
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Oil on canvas, 360 x 182 cm
Museo Diocesano, Camerino


Born at Florence, Italy, July 22, 1515; died May 27, 1595. Philip's family originally came from Castelfranco but had lived for many generations in Florence, where not a few of its members had practiced the learned professions, and therefore took rank with the Tuscan nobility. Among these was Philip's own father, Francesco Neri, who eked out an insufficient private fortune with what he earned as a notary. A circumstance which had no small influence on the life of the saint was Francesco's friendship with the Dominicans; for it was from the friars, that Philip received many of his early religious impressions. Besides a younger brother, who died in early childhood, Philip had two younger sisters, Caterina and Elisabetta. It was with them that "the good Pippo", as he soon began to be called, committed his only known fault. He gave a slight push to Caterina, because she kept interrupting him and Elisabetta, while they were reciting psalms together. One incident of his childhood is dear to his early biographers as the first visible intervention of Providence on his behalf, and perhaps dearer still to his modern disciples, because it reveals the human characteristics of a boy amid the supernatural graces of a saint. When about eight years old he was left alone in a courtyard to amuse himself; seeing a donkey laden with fruit, he jumped on its back; the beast bolted, and both tumbled into a deep cellar. His parents hastened to the spot and extricated the child, not dead, as they feared, but entirely uninjured.

Having studied the humanities under the best scholars of a scholarly generation, at the age of sixteen he was sent to help his father's cousin in business. He applied himself with diligence, and his kinsman soon determined to make him his heir. But he would often withdraw for prayer to a little mountain chapel belonging to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino, built above the harbor of Gaeta in a cleft of rock which tradition says was among those rent at the hour of Our Lord's death. It was here that his vocation became definite: he was called to be the Apostle of Rome. In 1533 he arrived in Rome without any money. He had not informed his father of the step he was taking, and he had deliberately cut himself off from his kinsman's patronage. He was, however, at once befriended by Galeotto Caccia, a Florentine resident, who gave him a room in his house and an allowance of flour, in return for which he undertook the education of his two sons. For seventeen years Philip lived as a layman in Rome, probably without thinking of becoming a priest. It was perhaps while tutor to the boys, that he wrote most of the poetry which he composed both in Latin and in Italian. Before his death he burned all his writings, and only a few of his sonnets have come down to us. He spent some three years, beginning about 1535, in the study of philosophy at the Sapienza, and of theology in the school of the Augustinians. When he considered that he had learnt enough, he sold his books, and gave the price to the poor. Though he never again made study his regular occupation, whenever he was called upon to cast aside his habitual reticence, he would surprise the most learned with the depth and clearness of his theological knowledge.

He now devoted himself entirely to the sanctification of his own soul and the good of his neighbor. His active apostolate began with solitary and unobtrusive visits to the hospitals. Next he induced others to accompany him. Then he began to frequent the shops, warehouses, banks, and public places of Rome, melting the hearts of those whom he chanced to meet, and exhorting them to serve God. In 1544, or later, he became the friend of St. Ignatius. Many of his disciples tried and found their vocations in the infant Society of Jesus; but the majority remained in the world, and formed the nucleus of what afterwards became the Brotherhood of the Little Oratory.

During his last years as a layman, Philip's apostolate spread rapidly. In 1548, together with his confessor, Persiano Rosa, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity for looking after pilgrims and convalescents. Its members met for Communion, prayer, and other spiritual exercises in the church of S. Salvatore, and the saint himself introduced exposition of the Blessed Sacrament once a month. At these devotions Philip preached, though still a layman, and we learn that on one occasion alone he converted no less than thirty dissolute youths. In 1550 a doubt occurred to him as to whether he should not discontinue his active work and retire into absolute solitude. His perplexity was set at rest by a vision of St. John the Baptist, and by another vision of two souls in glory, one of whom was eating a roll of bread, signifying God's will that he should live in Rome for the good of souls as though he were in a desert, abstaining as far as possible from the use of meat.

In 1551, however, he received a true vocation from God. At the bidding of his confessor -- nothing short of this would overcome his humility -- he entered the priesthood. He stayed in church, hearing confessions or ready to hear them, from daybreak till nearly midday, and not content with this, he usually confessed some forty persons in his room before dawn. Thus he labored untiringly throughout his long priesthood.

(Principal source - Catholic Encyclopedia - 1913 edition)

O God, who never cease to bestow the glory of holiness
on the faithful servants you raise up for yourself,
graciously grant
that the Holy Spirit may kindle in us that fire
with which he wonderfully filled
the heart of Saint Philip Neri.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.

First Reading: Philippians 4:4-9
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

Gospel Reading: John 17:20-26
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent Me. The glory which thou hast given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent Me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given Me, may be with Me where I am, to behold my glory which Thou hast given Me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee; and these know that Thou hast sent Me. I made known to them Thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them."


Reverend Father,

On the occasion of the fourth centenary of the dies natalis of St Philip Neri, Florentine by birth and Roman by adoption, I am pleased to address you and all the members of the Confederation of the Oratory, to recall its founder's example of holiness and to strengthen in each one the commitment of faith, active charity and enduring in hope (cf. 1 Thes 1:3).

1. The loving figure of the "saint of joy" even today still maintains intact that irresistible charm that he exercised on all those who drew near him to learn to know and experience the authentic sources of Christian joy.

Leafing through the biography of St Philip, in fact, one is surprised and fascinated by the cheerful and relaxed method he used to educate, supporting each person with fraternal generosity and patience. As is well known, the saint used to put his teaching into short and wise maxims: "Be good, if you can"; "Scruples and melancholy, stay away from my house"; "Be simple and humble"; "He who does not pray is a speechless animal"; and, bringing his hand to his forehead, "Holiness is three fingers deep". Behind the cleverness of these and many other "sayings", we are aware of the acute and realistic knowledge he had acquired of human nature and the dynamics of grace. He translated the experience of his long life and the wisdom of a heart inhabited by the Holy Spirit into these immediate, terse teachings. These aphorisms have now become a patrimony of wisdom as it were for Christian spirituality.

2. St Philip appears against the background of the Roman Renaissance as the "prophet of joy", who had decided to follow Jesus, even while being actively involved in the culture of his time, which in many respects is particularly close to that of today.

Humanism, which was completely focused on man and his remarkable intellectual and practical abilities, offered the rediscovery of a joyous naturalistic freshness, without obstacles or inhibitions, as a reaction to a certain ill-conceived medieval dourness. Man, considered almost as a pagan god, thus became the absolute protagonist. Furthermore, a sort of revision of the moral law was worked out with the objective of finding and guaranteeing happiness.

St Philip, who was conscious of the aspirations of the society of his time, did not deny this yearning for joy but undertook to propose its true source, which he had discovered in the Gospel message. It is the word of Christ that traces the true image of man, revealing those features that make him a beloved child of the Father, accepted as a brother by the Incarnate Word and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 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. His nightly prayer in the Catacombs of St Sebastian, where he often withdrew, was not just a search for solitude, but rather a desire to spend time conversing with the witnesses of the faith, to question them - just as the Renaissance scholars used to weave conversations with the Classics of antiquity: and from knowledge came imitation and then emulation.

In St Philip, to whom the Spirit gave a "heart of fire" as he kept vigil on the eve of Pentecost in 1544, it is possible to glimpse the allegory of the great and divine transformations brought about through prayer. A productive and sure programme of formation for joy - our saint teaches - is nourished and rests on a harmonious constellation of choices: assiduous prayer, frequent Communion, rediscovery and use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, daily and familiar contact with the word of God, the fruitful exercise of fraternal charity and service; and then devotion to Our Lady, the model and true cause of our joy. In this regard, how can we forget his wise and efficacious warning: "My children, be devoted to Mary: I know what I am saying! Be devoted to Mary!".

3. Called by antonomasia the "saint of joy", St Philip must also be recognized as the "Apostle of Rome", indeed as the "reformer of the Eternal City". This he became almost by a natural evolution and development of the choices made under the guidance of grace. He truly was the light and salt of Rome, in the words of the Gospel (cf. Mt 5:13:16). He knew how to be "light" in that culture which was certainly splendid, but often only because of the indirect, glancing rays of paganism. In this social context, Philip was deferential to authority, very devoted to the deposit of truth, intrepid in announcing the Christian message. Thus he was a source of light for everyone.

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. He was, at the same time, a Cyrenean and a critical conscience, an enlightened adviser and a smiling teacher.

For this reason, he did not adopt Rome so much as Rome adopted him! He lived for 60 years in this city, which meanwhile was becoming populated with saints. Even if in the streets he met suffering humanity, and comforted and sustained it with the charity of a wise and very human word, he preferred to gather young people in the Oratory, his true invention! He made it a place of joyful meeting, a training ground for formation, a centre of artistic enlightenment.

It was in the Oratory that St Philip, together with cultivating piety in its traditional and new expressions, undertook to reform and elevate art, restoring it to the service of God and the Church. Convinced as he was that beauty leads to goodness, he brought all that had an artistic stamp within the realm of his educational project. And he himself became a patron of various artistic forms, promoting sound initiatives that led to truth and goodness.

The contribution made by St Philip to sacred music was incisive and exemplary; he urged it to be elevated from a source of foolish amusement to being a re-creation for the spirit. It was due to his initiative that musicians and composers began a reform that was to reach its highest peak in Pierluigi da Palestrina.

4. May St Philip, loving and generous man, chaste and humble saint, active and contemplative apostle, remain the constant model of the members of the Congregation of the Oratory! He offers all the Oratorians a plan and style of life that even today have a particular timeliness. May his so-called "quadrilateral" - humility, charity, prayer and joy - continue to be a most sound basis on which to build the interior edifice of one's spiritual life.

If they can follow their founder's example, the Oratorians will continue to carry out a significant role in Church affairs. I therefore exhort all the sons and daughters of St Philip Neri always to be faithful to the Oratorian vocation, by seeking Christ, following him with perseverance and becoming generous sowers of joy among young people, who are so often tempted to discouragement and lack of confidence.

With these wishes I wish to invoke the heavenly protection of St Philip Neri on the whole Oratorian Community, while expressing my cordial wish that the jubilee celebrations will become an occasion for a stimulating rediscovery of the figure and work of this special witness to Christ, who can still teach so much, at the close of this century, to all Christians involved in the new evangelization.

I accompany these wishes with a special Apostolic Blessing, which I sincerely impart to you, to the members of the Confederation of the Oratory and to all those who draw from the spirituality of the "saint of joy".

From the Vatican, 7 October 1994. POPE JOHN PAUL II

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