Be Humble, Be Lowly: St. Philip Neri
Around the time Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses in Wittenburg, giving birth to the Protestant Reformation, we see God’s hand in bringing into the world a man who has been described as childlike. One that was not caught up in the politics of his time, nor was he someone who grasped for power. St. Phillip Neri was a man of great joy and humor and God used him to convert many hearts and souls of his time.
He grew up in Florence, Italy. His father was a humble notary who did his best to provide for his family. Despite his father’s efforts, the family had simple means which is why Phillip most likely went to work with his Uncle Romolo in San Germano, near Monte Casino.1
Even though his Uncle had plans to hand over his business one day to him, St. Philip decided after some time to leave his uncle in order to live in Rome.
It is difficult to expound upon what led Philip to this decision. We can only say for sure that The Holy Spirit played a role. Upon his arrival in Rome, he began to speak to the youth, who had adopted a neo-paganism at the end of the Renaissance. Philip, in his simplicity, in his interactions with people in their daily lives, began to gather a small confraternity who would discuss theological ideas in their own, simple way. This group which had formed around St. Philip Neri took upon themselves the task of ministering to the pilgrims of Rome. It was at the church called San Girolamo that they nursed the sick back to health, washed the dirty feet of travelers and gave comfort to the strangers on their spiritual journeys.2 Philip did all of this before he was even ordained a priest!
One of the priests he knew as a confessor, Fr. Persiano Rosa, finally suggested the idea to St. Philip of becoming a priest. Six months after Philip gave his assent to the idea, he was ordained a priest on May 23rd 1551.3 He took up permanent residency at San Girolamo where he would lead as superior of what became the Oratory. The Oratory continued in their work serving the sick and poor pilgrims to Rome.
Early on in his ministry St. Philip Neri wondered where God was calling him to serve. After reading Little Letters published by the Jesuits, Philip felt strongly that he was called to serve with missionaries in India. However, after seeking spiritual direction from an 80-year-old Cistercian, he was told “Philip, your Indies are here in Rome!”4 He spent the rest of his life serving in The Eternal City. He focused great efforts on being a father figure to the youth in Rome and his closest followers tended to be the youngest.
Throughout his life as a priest in Rome, his joy and sense of humor were contagious. He was deeply admired by many and from all social classes. He found creative ways to engage the community and invite them into a religious experience. One of the ways he did this was to reestablish the tradition of visiting the seven major churches of Rome: St. Peter’s, St. Paul-outside-the-Walls, St. Sebastian’s, St. John Lateran, Holy-Cross-in Jerusalem, St. Laurence-outside-the-Walls, and St. Mary Major.
St. Philip Neri wanted these processions to be an event to be enjoyed by all. It wasn’t uncommon to find pets joining the procession, including Cardinal Santa Fiora’s small dog, along with Philip’s cat. The cat would be carried in a basket by one of the company, that is until someone would jokingly threaten to toss the cat off a bridge into the Tiber River. At this, the saint would rush to the back of the procession to save his feline friend.5
If was this type of humor which permeated St. Philip’s interactions. We find many saints who, with their feet planted on the ground, reach up towards heaven. St. Philip Neri seemed to have a string attached to him from heaven and he felt the need to grasp on to the earth in order to not float away.6
St. Philip Neri experienced plenty of ecstasies during his lifetime. Sometimes they were so intense that they would cause him to levitate off the ground. He did whatever he could to not experience them in front of others. During his lifetime word spread throughout Europe about the great saint but he was never one for notoriety and did not want reasons to add to his popularity. One expression that he took to heart was “Siate umili, siate basi” (Be humble; be lowly).
On February 11, 1590 Philip was awaiting a procession which was to bring him the relics of St. Papias and St. Maurus. He was so overcome with gratitude at seeing the procession that he noticed that he was about to enter an ecstasy and would soon levitate if he did not do something about it. In the moment, he seized one the Swiss guards walking past him and clung on to his beard. To the amusement of everyone, he continued to compliment how wonderful the beard looked while appreciatively stroking it.7
He was surrounded so much by the perfume of God that he could tell by his nose the severity of sins when he gave confession.8 He had a sixth sense of when great friends of his had passed away or were being greatly tempted. He would then “just happen” to show up to help guide the friend away from the near occasion of sin.9
Where the Benedictines favor permanency of place, and the Jesuits may favor missionary work, St. Philip Neri was both of these things. He remained an ever-present, humble servant of God with a clear focus on the conversion of souls. It was estimated that in 1575, the Oratory served 144,913 pilgrims and had also served 365,132 meals. While Philip never went to India, much of the world came to him so that they could catch a glimpse of a saint or perhaps just share a laugh with him.
1 Louis Bouyer de L’Oratoire, Translated by Michael Day, The Roman Socrates: A Portrait of St. Philip Neri (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1958), 17.
2 Ibid, 38.
3 Ibid, 42.
4 Marcel Jouhandeau, Translated by George Lamb, St. Philip Neri (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1960), 37-38.
5 Ibid, 40.
6 Ibid, 5.
7 Ibid, 51-52.
8 Ibid, 16.
9 Ibid, 17.