In reading the life of this great Saint, who has the title of the Apostle of Rome, we feel as if he had come to teach us how to be very holy, yet cheerful and gay; how to keep us as closely united to God amidst the bustle and work of the great busy world, as if we were in the shelter of the quiet cloister.
“Filippo Romolo,” as his baptismal name was registered in the church of Saint John Baptist, was born in the city of Florence on the 21st of July, 1515, and his father, Francesco Neri, and his mother, Lucrezia, were persons of good family and great piety, who tried to bring up their four children in the fear of God, and the faithful practice of their religion.
The little Philip was always remarkably obedient, and when his own mother died, and his father in time married a second wife, the child paid this step-mother the same respect as he had shown to his own parent in every trifling thing.
Only once did Philip cause his father to be displeased with him, and that was when he gave his sister Catherine a push for disturbing him and Elizabeth when they were reading the Psalms together, and then he was so sorry, and cried so bitterly for his fault, that he was quickly forgiven. All his little companions loved him because he was so kind to them, so ready to give up to their wishes when they prayed; indeed, it seemed as if nothing could make him angry or impatient, and they called him “Good Pippo,” because he was so sweet tempered.
An accident happened to this little boy when he was about eight years of age, which, strange to say, did not cause him the least injury. A donkey was standing in the court-yard, and without thinking of any danger, Philip jumped on his back, and together they fell down several steps into a cellar, in such a way that he had the donkey entirely upon him. The servants were terrified, and ran to the spot, expecting that he would be seriously injured, if not dead; but they drew him out quite safely, not even bruised or stunned by the fall, so wonderfully had God preserved him.
When the time for his education began, Philip won the love of his school-fellows by his good humour and gentle gaiety, just as he had won the little playmates of his earliest years, and he delighted his masters by his rapid progress and intelligence.
We can be sure that this boy would not have been so kind, so obedient, so industrious, if he had not been filled with the love of God. It was his prayerfulness, his constant recollection of the Divine presence which kept him good and pure and modest during all the trials and temptations which no youth is wholly free from. Yet with Philip there was no talking about his devotion – it was quiet and persevering goodness which tried to pass unobserved, and even his desire and hope to be called by God to serve him as a priest was treasured in his heart as a secret thing, which was better hidden than made known to others.
If anything troubled Philip, he turned to God for help, with the simple trust of a little child. Having once lost a gold chain in the street, he found it by an immediate prayer, and in the same way regained a parcel of clothes which he had let fall he knew not where.
With all his joyousness and gaiety, Philip had a great longing to suffer for Christ, and when he heard of what his Lord had endured for him, tears would run down his cheeks as his heart burned to prove his grateful love by bearing some pain or trial for His sake. So when, at the age of fifteen years, he was very ill with a violent fever, he never complained, and even went about as usual, until at last it was found out, and he was compelled to keep his bed, and take proper remedies.
Philip showed his contempt for what the world thinks great in many ways. A list of his ancestors was once showed him, with the idea of giving him pleasure by the knowledge of the good birth of those to whom he was related, but in indignation he seized and tore it to pieces, saying that he only cared to have his name written in the Lamb’s book of life.
As he grew near sixteen years of age, his parents began to think much about his future occupation, and having a very rich cousin at Naples, Francesco Neri sent Philip to him, hoping that he might inherit his property. Nothing could have been less pleasing to the lad, but he applied himself diligently to the new duties of commerce, and became so dear to his relative, that the old man resolved to make ^iim his heir. Yet while Philip engaged in business from obedience to his father, he gave every moment of recreation to prayer.
The town of Saint Germano, where he was then living, lies at the foot of a mountain which is rent by three immense chasms, caused by the earthquake which happened when Jesus died. The Benedictine monks had built a little chapel in the largest of these chasms, and there, as soon as his duties were finished, Philip would hasten to pray, and hour after hour he would kneel before a crucifix, meditating upon the sacred passion of Christ, and begging most earnestly for the teaching of the Holy Spirit, that he might lead a life which was higher and better. Day after day, night after night, he prayed on thus humbly and patiently, till God showed him what to do, and gave him a strong determination to leave home and friends and all earthly honour and greatness, so as to serve his Creator without any reserve. When he told his intention to his cousin, the old man was very much distressed, and tried to persuade him to turn from his holy purpose. As he found that the hope of wealth would not influence him, he tried to touch the youth’s heart by speaking of the claims of his family, but Philip only thanked him for his kindness, and kept firm in his resolve, then bade farewell to Saint Germano, and took his way to Rome. It was the year 1533 when Philip Neri entered the holy city, a perfect stranger, without a home and without money, and for the sixtytwo years which passed before his death, he never left it. A gentleman who met him, and was much struck with his modest and pleasant manners, gave him a small room in his house, and a certain quantity of flour every year, in return for which Philip instructed his two little sons; yet although he dwelt under their roof, he did not mix with the family, but spent almost as solitary a life as if he had been a hermit. He eat daily a little loaf, which he fetched from a baker’s in exchange for the flour, and though the servants of the household were very kind to him, and wanted to bring him better food, he would not accept it, and going down to the court-yard, sat by the side of a well there, and dined off bread and water, with now and then a few olives. Even this poor diet was taken sparingly; very often he would go without anything for three days, and never took more than one meal in the day. There was no furniture but a small bed in his room, with a rope extending across it, upon which he hung his clothes, and here he was in the habit of praying many hours of the night.
When Philip began to study theology, he soon gained the first place among his fellow-students, and when his masters found out his wonderful talents, united to such deep humility, they gave him the old name he had won as a little boy in Florence, “Philip the Good.” Besides study, besides prayer, he engaged in many works of charity, visiting the hospitals, and catechizing the poor who crowded the porticoes of the Roman churches; but when night closed in it was his happiest time, for then he would seek some unfrequented church, and there read the Holy Gospels, or Lives of the Saints, or, falling on his knees, become so rapt in thoughts of spiritual things, that he would remain hour after hour, unconscious how time was passing, begging always to be taught to follow Jesus in poverty, contempt, and suffering. The sight of a crucifix made him weep so much, that when one was before him, he found it almost impossible to attend to the lectures in the schools; and the lessons God taught him at the foot of the Cross forced him, after threa years’ study, to sell his books, and devote the money to the poor, giving his life entirely to the pursuit of heavenly things.
Though Philip remained in the same house, he was scarcely ever to be found there now, the quiet churches were his true home in the day, and often he spent the night in one of them. If the churches were closed, he would kneel before the door, waiting for the moment when it would be opened and he could go into the presence of his Lord.
He also lived in the constant practice of severe penances, scourging himself with chains, sleeping on the bare ground, and keeping strict silence, and yet in all this he longed for some stricter life, some deeper solitude.
At last he remembered the catacombs; there he should be quite alone, so amidst the bones of the martyrs he prayed and wept, and was so carried away by the fervour of his love, that often for three days he would stay underground, without having tasted food or water. After a time spent in solitude, the same love of God which had sent him there, filled him with a burning desire to save souls, and so to preach Jesus crucified, he returned once more to the crowded churches, to the streets, to the shops, to the hospitals – whereever sinners were, there was Philip Neri to be found. Strongly as he attracted all people by his sweet manner, he seemed to have the greatest power over youths, whom he persuaded first to listen to him, and then to turn to the service of God. Notwithstanding his fervour, Philip had temptations, but he resisted them all in dependence upon the Holy Spirit of God; many times the devil, in human shape, was allowed to appear to him, but prayer kept him safe and unharmed.
Eleven years after the Saint had given up all for God, he was praying with great earnestness for the gift of the Holy Ghost, when suddenly a globe of fire appeared to him, which entered his lips, and passed into his breast. It seemed, then, that he could not bear the heat within him, so he lay upon . the ground and tore his dress open, and when, after a time, the intensity of heat grew less, he rose, feeling within his soul a strange new joy. But as he placed his hand over his heart, he felt that it was swollen, and during the rest of his life it remained so, although he was free from pain, and after his death two of his ribs were found to be broken, and raised up so as to form an opening between the ends. He also had a violent palpitation of the heart when he said Mass, gave Holy Communion and absolution, or prayed, and then it would shake the bed on which he lay, or even the altar where he was offering the Holy Sacrifice. Thus Philip’s prayer had been heard by his receiving the Holy Ghost in a sensible form, and with the gift his love to God increased so much that he could scarcely contain it within him. To us, who are so cold, so hard, in God’s holy presence, it may seem strange to hear Saint Philip cry, “My God, I cannot bear so much! Stop, Lord, or I shall die!” After this miraculous gift, Philip made no change in his outward life; still he taught the poor, visited the hospitals, and passed his nights in prayer, and it was not until the year 1551 that he took holy orders, and was ordained a priest. After then, he resided with his confessor and three other priests, joining together in prayer, and trying to vie with each other in gaining souls. Philip now began his sacred and happy duty of saying Mass, during which the tears rolled down his cheeks, and he became so overcome that he had to stop short, until he had power to continue the celebration.
Once, during his Mass, some nuns saw him raised from the ground, and a little girl also saw this, and told her mother that “the father stood up in the air;” many such favours were shown him, and he obtained countless graces for others, by gaining them the recovery of health, or a complete conversion from sin, or some help in temporal difficulties.
At that time the Holy Sacraments were very much neglected, and Saint Philip roused people from this indifference, so that they began to be frequent at confession and Communion, and as time passed on they cjame to him in such numbers, that he was hours in his confessional, where he once had waited almost in vain.
Though Philip’s holy life did good to so many, there were others who took a very great dislike to him, and would have rejoiced to rid Rome of his presence; they laughed at his devotion, they would close the door in his face when he went to prepare for Mass, they would even drive him from one altar to another with violent words of abuse. But the holy man was never disturbed by this treatment; not only was he silent and patient, but he even spoke well of those who persecuted him, and the more their spite increased, so did his prayers increase for them. Many of these persons became penitent, and were afterwards his most devoted followers. Philip was now sure that the place for him to fill was in the world, the life of an apostle amongst men; and though there were many longings for solitude, and for the joy of being a martyr for his faith, he took up the work God offered him, and for the last forty years he spent on earth, devoted his time and strength to toil amongst the sinful, the suffering, and those who needed a guide to a more perfect following of Christ.
The little meetings Saint Philip had from the first held in his own room, to attract young men to converse about spiritual things, became so thronged that he was obliged to build an oratory over one of the naves of the church, and here were commenced the devotions and exercises which resulted in the foundation, afterwards, of the “Oratory,” where, in time, a religious community sprung up, who imitated the humility, and adopted the habits of life, of their much-beloved father. Many years passed before it took its place amongst the congregations and orders of the Church, but some twenty years previous to the death of Philip, he saw his great work accomplished, and his foundation supported by the protection of the Pope.
The Saint was growing old, but his life appeared to be continued that he might show forth the power and goodness of God, for strange favours were showered upon him. At the touch of his hand, pain would disappear, at his prayer life was often granted miraculously, temptations and sins were revealed to him before they had been confessed; and these things were of daily occurrence. Once a boy had died with a sin untold, which he had forgotten; at Saint Philip’s call, he awoke as if from sleep, made his confession, and then expired once more. Yet amidst all these marvels, the Saint’s humility was ever increasing. “Not I, but Christ Who liveth in me,” was the expression of the gentle face, the loving heart; and to try to excite the derision and contempt of others he would even do things which were in themselves absurd, but which, being done with the intention of glorifying God, were very dear to Him. At last, Philip became so old and feeble, that every one wondered how his life was continued, but he still attended the confessional, and was early and punctual in offering his daily Mass. He had the privilege of celebrating in private, because of his great age, and it often happened that his soul became so wonderfully united to God, that two hours would pass between the Agnus Dei and the conclusion, during which the server would leave the Oratory, so that no one might be present but Philip and the Lord he loved so fervently. When it was over, his eyes were full of heavenly light, and his pure soul seemed to shine through his white face. At last the fathers of the Oratory hear that Saint Philip is dying; they stand round his bed, when he is suddenly raised in the air, as he exclaims, “Oh, my dearest Mother, art thou come to free me from pain?” then recovering himself, he grew conscious that others were present, and, bursting into tears, wept long. The Blessed Virgin had indeed restored him for a time to his usual health and labours, but in the next year, 1595, he had an attack of fever, from which he never recovered, although his illness was lingering, and on the 25th of May, he died, having reached the age of eighty years.
As the fathers knelt around his bed, one of them cried out, “Father, are you going without speaking to us? At least give us your blessing.” Then Philip opened his eyes, looked first to heaven, then to his children, and drew his last breath without any struggle, as if he were only falling asleep. Every one believed him to be a saint, yet many years passed before his canonization was solemnized in Saint Peter’s church, and then the name so loved and honoured in Rome, became known and loved throughout the Catholic world.
Saint Philip valued prayer so highly that he used to say that men who did not pray were like animals without reason; prayer was life to him, and he sought to make it the life of others, bidding them throw themselves into the arms of God, asking Him to teach them how to speak to Him. Many short words of prayer were constantly on his lips, all breathing his spirit of humility, simplicity, and love; one of these will give us the motive of his every action, “My Jesus, what can I do to please Thee?” God’s pleasure – not his^own; God’s work, God’s Will, God in everything, and self in nothing, made the life of Philip Neri holy, and his death all joy and peace.
– from , by Mary F Seymour