Saturday, May 26, 2007

St. Philip Neri: The Silly Saint With The Big Heart

"It is easier to guide cheerful persons into the spiritual life than the melancholy."
–St. Philip Neri, often while wearing a funny costume

The sixteenth century was a serious time for the Church. It was the era of reformation and counter reformation, of sinister schismatics and the greatest of saints. But perhaps no one was more important in getting Rome refocused than the smiling ragged priest equally renown for his miraculous prayers and practical jokes, St. Philip Neri.

St. Philip, who was later to become good friends with Sts. Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Charles Borromeo, advisor to St. Pius V, correspondent with Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and confessor to St. Camillus of Lellis, was born in Florence in 1515. Philip's mom died when he was five, and from a young age, Philip developed a love of visiting different churches—a pilgrimage practice he would retain the remainder of his life. In 1532, the unholy Medici family returned to the city and Philip, sickened by their lust for wealth and power, left Florence and never returned.

After living with his merchant uncle for a short time, Philip quickly realized the business world was not his calling. He struck out on his own and settled in Rome (his home until his death in 1595), tutoring two sons of a customs agent in exchange for room and board. The eternal city had been sacked seven years previous, and Philip, distraught over the still many desecrated churches as well as the decadent reign of Pope Clement VII (also a Medici) turned to a life of prayer and study, concentrating on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. He lived the life of a holy layman for the next ten years when on the eve of Pentecost in 1544, while praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he had a mystical experience in which a ball of fire seemed to enter his mouth and travel down to his heart, filling him with so much joy and pain that he was thrown to the ground. When he awoke, two of his ribs were broken, and it was later discovered at the time of his autopsy that they were broken by the sudden expansion of his heart.

Shortly afterwards, Philip's cheerful zeal for Christ began to attract disciples, and by the time he was finally ordained a priest in 1551, much of the practice of "the Oratory" was already in place. Philip and his men would meet in an upper room and start each "service" with reading and meditation of scriptures, usually followed by a question and answer session, then further readings on the life of the saints or Church history, then concluding with several hymns. Because Philip refused hard and fast rules, there was no set order to each meeting, and oftentimes the group would all get up and make a pilgrimage to one (or more) of the Seven Churches in Rome discussing Christ along the way. Due to Philip's unique combination of holiness and humor, these meetings became wildly successful, attracting people of all walks of life and economic backgrounds, to which the saint all gave equal treatment—afterwards either bringing the entire group to the hospital to help the sick or to the street to beg for alms.

Of course, due to rivalries, many jealous "religious" resented the beggar priest's success and begged Pope Paul IV to shut Philip's Oratory down. One can only imagine that this ultra serious reformer Pontiff didn't take kindly to stories of a lowly padre greeting a cardinal with a false nose, tiny hat and big shoes, or walking through the streets of Rome with half his beard shaved off in a humorous attempt to beg more alms. Also, as the Oratory's meetings were run by layman and open to all, Neri's adversaries (including Cardinal Sforza, who not only lost servants but his dog to Neri when "Capriccio" refused to leave Neri's side after the evil cardinal brought him with on an Oratory visit) even accused him of running a Lutheran service, and Pope Paul, having heard enough, shut the Oratory down. Although Neri's prayers and holiness prevailed and the Oratory was eventually re-opened, it was not until after the saintly but scrupulous Pius V passed that Pope Gregory XIII finally approved the Congregation of the Oratory for good in 1575.

In addition to his unquenchable love for the Eucharist (Pope Gregory finally approved Philip's request for saying the Mass in private because his frequent ecstasies during the liturgical celebration made public presentations impractical) Philip's rowdy humor attracted a throng of boys whenever he walked through Rome's streets, and his direct but merciful discourses brought scores of penitents back to the confessional. Of course, after playing sports with the young men, many would follow him back to the Oratory, only to be scolded by the older, more serious disciples for their playful noisiness. Philip's reply? "I don't care if they are chopping wood on my back as long as they are not sinning." As for his confessions, Neri sometimes told his companions that he could smell the truly evil sinners approaching, and often recited the people their sins before they told him. Of course, if Neri wasn't afraid to walk the streets looking like a fool, he wasn't afraid to give similar penances to others, once making a vain woman wear her fur coat all day in one hundred degree heat, and a rich man survive for days only on the food that he could beg.

In the end, the secret of Neri's success was not only his sincerity but his simplicity. It didn't matter whether a man was a bishop or a beggar; if he came to him depressed he would playfully box them. Once, when a cardinal came to Neri with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Philip agrees to listen—but first they must run together through the streets! From the time I was a young man, graduating from the University of Notre Dame only to live in a single room above a pizza restaurant until I found out my vocation, until today, jogging through the streets with my rosary on the day before Pentecost—and being laughed at by those who have the sense to come in out of the rain—I have tried to live in the spirit of this most joyous of saints. Your dream is alive in me, St. Philip Neri! Pray that I can continue to bring the Lord's own laughter to those I encounter on my road too.


JimAroo said...

One of Philip's disciples asked for permission to suffer the mortification of wearing a hair shirt. The saint said yes as long as the penitent wore it outside his clothing so as to suffer the worse mortification of being mocked.

He combined the intense prayer life and apostolic fervor that is so appealing to us today. He used his attractive personality and good humored temperament for God's glory.

Some of the more pompous church types never liked him. When Pope Gregory XV was considering him for canonization, the Pope met his advisors who all advised him against advancing Philip's cause. In the middle of the meeting, St Philip appeared to them , dressed as a clown, danced around the room and disappeared. It is believed the good Pope said santo subito!

He was canonized in 1622 along with Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, Isidore the Farmer, and Teresa of Avila! Quite a starting five on anyone's team!

Tom O'Toole said...

JimAroo-Philip is one saint that it just seems you have to write a book, not a blog, to appreciate. What a guy ... I'd love to have been there myself. -Tom