Feast Day: May 26
Philip Neri was one of the great figures of the Catholic Reformation. His influence is the more remarkable for the fact that he wrote no books, proposed no original theology, and inspired no school of spirituality. He simply radiated a spirit of joy and holiness, and so managed to elevate the spiritual level of his time.
Born in Florence, Italy, into a family of modest income, Philip frequented the Dominican church of St. Mark, where he acquired a great respect for Savonarola (Dominican reformer). Later, during a period in which he engaged in commerce at Cassino, Italy, he came into contact with Benedictine spirituality. For a time he studied at the University Sapienza but he soon gave that up and began to work as a lay apostle among the people of Rome. He became known as the “Second Apostle of Rome” because his ministry promoted a general return to the Christian living.
With the help of his confessor, he founded the lay Confraternity of the Most Blessed Trinity to provide assistance for pilgrims. Advised that he could do much more good as a priest, he was ordained in 1551 at the age of 36. Through his apostolate in the confessional and his spiritual conferences, he attracted a group of followers who ultimately formed the Congregation of the Oratory.
Philip Neri was in contact with the outstanding Church figures of the day: Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Camillus de Lellis, Felix of Cantalice and numerous popes such as Paul IV, Pius V, Gregory XIII, Gregory XIV and Clement VIII. For forty-five years, Philip evangelized thousands of people at Rome, from the poor to the popes. He buttonholed them in life-changing conversations, instructed them in conferences, and mainly drew them to conversion in the confessional. Philip won their hearts with his consistent kindness and jovial sense of humor.
Like his contemporary Teresa of Ávila, Philip Neri was a mystic-in-action. He reported that once in prayer, he saw a globe of fire enter his mouth and set his heart aflame that permanently afflicted him. The saint did his best to hide his mystical phenomena, but sometimes his ecstasies at Mass lasted so long that the acolytes could leave for an hour’s break. In the last years of his life, between the ages of 75 and 80, Philip concentrated on the ministry of the confessional and spiritual conferences. He died in Rome with a reputation for cheerful goodness and optimism.
The Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings contains an excerpt from a treatise by St. Augustine who refers to the joy of being in Christ, and this helps us understand better a saying of St. Philip Neri: “A servant of God ought always to be happy.” The spirituality of St. Philip Neri is relevant and available to all. Consequently, the duties and involvements in the affairs of this life need never be an obstacle to the joy, love, and service of God.
“Cast yourself with confidence into the arms of God. And be very sure of this, that if he wants anything of you he will fit you for your work and give you strength to do it.”
– Saint Philip Neri
Ellsberg, Robert. “All Saints.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar-Updated and Revised Edition.” New York: Alba House, 2012.