Saint Phillip Neri
by Michel Vachon
used with permission
Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595; canonized in 1622)
Feast Day: May 26
Patron of: Rome, the Oratorian Order
It is sometimes discouraging to live in a culture that is unfriendly towards Christian faith. So many things around us act in immoral and evil ways, while saying that we are wrong to object. Any time we feel overwhelmed, we need only consider the example of saints such as Philip Neri (nay'-ree).
All saints are optimistic and cheerful but Neri is more obviously so than most. His many jokes, usually at his own expense, are legendary. For example he once shaved off half his beard before going to a ceremony being held in his honour. This humorous approach to life is all the more surprising given that Neri lived in the 16th century, a time of immense troubles for the Catholic church. New wealth had made people lazy and selfish, the Protestant reformation had swept many Christians away from the church, Rome had been sacked and, worst of all, the church's own leadership was full of corruption.
Neri responded by forming a group of priests called the Oratorians who reached out to the ordinary people of Rome. They got their name because they met regularly in a small room called an oratory ("ora" is a Latin word meaning "pray").
The Oratorians soon developed a massive following of people from different professions, including bankers and thieves, painters and printers, prostitutes and officials from the upper ranks of the church hierarchy. Many of the young men who began with Neri went on to become Popes, Cardinals, leaders and great artists who, collectively, had an immeasurable effect on the Church, an effect still felt today.
While we now see these achievements as clear and incredible victories, Neri actually faced a string of disappointments during his years as a priest. His dream of becoming a missionary like Saint Francis Xavier was dashed when church authorities told him his mission was in Rome. And some very powerful officials within the Church were threatened by the new movement and ordered Neri to cease his activities with the Oratorians. Neri responded to each of these setbacks with humour, humility and obedience.
Eventually, the officials who opposed him died and the Pope allowed Neri and the Oratorians to return to their work. They were even given the chance to build a church called Saint Maria of Vallicella but better known then, as it is today, as the new church or "Chiesa Nuova." The day the Oratorians moved in, they marched through the city in a rag tag procession carrying all their household goods — wooden spoons, bowls, chairs. At the head of this bizarre parade was Neri, kicking a soccer ball.
Anyone who saw a penniless 18 year old named Philip Neri arrive in Rome in the early 1530s, would not have seen much promise in the boy. Born in Florence, Neri had so far distinguished himself for his impulsive, reckless behaviour. He once jumped on the back of an unsuspecting donkey causing the startled animal to leap forward and down some stairs, leaving the donkey, the cart it was pulling and young Philip in a heap at the bottom. After this wild childhood, Neri was sent to learn business with a relative but he was unable to commit himself to work.
Neri thanked his relative for the opportunity, but chose instead to join the stream of impoverished pilgrims on the road to Rome. When he arrived he was just another mouth to feed in a city that was full of suffering people.
In Rome, Neri first studied philosophy and theology but decided he wanted to live a humbler life. He became a priest and soon had developed a large following of people who were inspired by his simple and humble lifestyle. Neri was particularly in demand as a confessor because he understood what had driven people to sin and gave penances that helped them turn their lives around.
Neri was always on guard against pride. He never preached sermons, for example, because he thought he would become vain by doing so. Instead he dealt with his congregation one at a time giving them support and advice. But even in this quiet way he managed to have long term effects that helped reform the entire church.
Beginning drivers have to be taught to look where they want to go and not at the things they are scared of running into. If we concentrate on what we want to avoid we often unconsciously steer right into it. Neri has a similar lesson for young men and women who are leaving their homes to make their way in the world.
As a confessor, Neri soon realized that the young often trip themselves up by concentrating on the sins they hoped to avoid. His solution was to create activities that led people in the right direction. He organized evenings of meditation, songs and readings. He held processions that visited seven churches in Rome with stops not only for prayers and silent devotion at each church but also for singing, dancing and a massive picnic — a real party attended by as many as 6000 people.
Most of all, Neri made sure that the young people who followed him had somewhere to go at night. He understood that it is while they were alone with their thoughts late at night that the young were most tempted by sin. When a colleague asked if the many young men who came to visit the Oratory at all hours weren't just wasting his time with their need for companionship, Neri answered, "They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin."
Neri also realized that some activities that look like "sacrifices" are really a source of pride. One day a young man in his care asked Neri for permission to wear a hairshirt. Philip allowed him to do so on the condition he wore it outside his clothes where it would cause him no physical discomfort but led others to laugh at him. The story became famous because, later in life, the man gratefully told anyone who would listen that this "spiritual mortification" taught him the real meaning of suffering and changed his life.
In 1595, after a long illness, Neri died. All of Rome mourned. The city was a very different one than it had been 60 years before. There was a new found faith in the town that soon spread to the entire Catholic world. In gratitude, the Pope called Neri the second apostle of Rome after Saint Peter.
Prayer: Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humour to our perspective — remembering always that humour is a gift from God.