Saint Philip Neri, Feastday: May 26, Patron of Rome
Brother John Raymond
May 24, 1998
Many people remember Saint Philip Neri for his sense of humor. In contrast to this what comes to my mind is the following incident: While spending time in fasting and prayer in the catacombs, a few days before Pentecost in 1544, a miracle of his heart took place. He was praying with great intensity asking the Holy Spirit for His gifts. Suddenly there appeared to him a globe of fire, which entered into his mouth and lodged in his chest. He felt a swelling, about as big as a man's fist, on his chest over the heart. After his death doctors discovered that the saint's heart had dilated and broken two ribs. After this miracle whenever Philip performed any spiritual action his heart would palpitate violently. Now that, to me, makes him more than just a funny person!
That being said, Philip was funny. One time as a priest he shaved off half his beard and preached. You can imagine what his audience must have been whispering about. He had a big dog and he would ask people to take his dog for a walk. But, as they started to walk the dog, he would stop them and say, "What are you doing? I mean carry him." If you saw anyone in Rome carrying a dog you would know that Philip had asked him to take his dog for a walk.
Philip had a method to his madness. The people of the 16th century were very proper, proud and serious. Not only did they need a lesson in humility but they also needed to loosen up. One priest that belonged to the Congregation of the Oratory that Philip founded was proud of a wonderful sermon he gave, for which people praised him. So Philip told the priest to give the same exact sermon again and again. After the sixth time, people's praise turned into scorn as they said, "Doesn't father know any other sermon?" The priest wasn't proud of his sermon anymore!
Philip was no simpleton. As a boy from a noble family in Florence, he studied the humanities under the best scholars. Nor was he without faults in his youth. Once, in irritation, he pushed his sister Caterina because she kept interrupting him and his other sister, Elisabetta, while they were reciting psalms together. Such a pious child! On another occasion, eight-year-old Philip, seeing a donkey laden with much fruit, jumped on its back. This was not, however, the straw that broke the donkey's back. Instead, the beast bolted and both of them tumbled into a deep cellar. Providentially, Philip escaped entirely uninjured.
For seventeen years Philip lived as a lay hermit in Rome. He studied philosophy and theology for three of those years. He gave himself up entirely to the sanctification of his own soul and the good of his neighbor. At this time he met St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, and the two became friends. In 1548, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity, which looked after pilgrims and convalescents. Its members met for Communion, prayer and other spiritual exercises in a church. Philip introduced exposition of the Blessed Sacrament once a month.
As a priest he emphasized frequent Confession and Holy Communion. He could read people's souls and went into ecstasy when celebrating Holy Mass, sometimes for two hours! I'll never complain about a long homily again.
So what can we learn from the life of St. Philip Neri? Perhaps three important words beginning with the letter H: Humility, Humor and Holiness. He is a saint I believe everyone can enjoy.