Today is the feast day of Saint Philip Neri. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Philip Neri, the celebrated Founder of the far-famed Oratory at Rome, was born in Florence, of very pious parents, in ths year 1515. He was so good in his childhood, that he was known under no other name than that of “the good little Philip.” To his parents he was so obedient, that his father said he had only once in his life occasion to reprove him, and this only for a slight cause; but Philip, thinking he had grieved his father, was so distressed that he wept bitterly. To pray and to be present at a sermon were his only pleasures; the former he continued for hours, and the latter he never neglected. Until his eighteenth year he remained with his father at Florence, when he was sent to Naples, to his uncle, who, being a rich merchant, wished to make Philip his heir. But Philip had no inclination to become a merchant, and with his uncle’s consent, he proceeded to Rome to study theology. At this period, Philip began the austere life which he continued unto his end. He nursed the sick in the hospitals, instructed the poor and the ignorant in religion, visited frequently during the day the seven Churches, and at night the tombs of the holy martyrs, through whose intercession he asked nothing more warmly than a true fervent love of God.
The fervor of his devotion at the time of his prayers was so great, that he tore his garments from his breast, the better to breathe, or laid himself with open breast upon the ground to cool the inward fire-of his love to God. “Oh! my God!” exclaimed he at such times, “O my God, my love! Thou art mine and I am wholly thine. O most adorable God! Thou who hast commanded that I should love Thee; why hast thou given me only one and so narrow a heart?” He was so filled with spiritual comfort, that he often exclaimed: “Leave me, O my Lord, leave me; for human weakness cannot bear such heavenly joys!” On Pentecost, he prayed most devoutly that the Holy Ghost would kindle in his heart the fire of Divine love. During his prayers, his heart was so filled with the ardor of his love, that through its emotion and expansion, two ribs were broken and raised above the others, as was seen with great astonishment after his death. He very seldom said Holy Mass without shedding many tears. He frequently stood for hours before the Altar in raptures, transported out of himself. This happened also to him at other times, and he was seen, while at prayers, raised from the ground and surrounded by a brilliant light. To pass whole nights in prayer was his supreme delight.
With his devotions, however, he did not forget the salvation of souls, for which, out of love to God, he most zealously labored. An almost incredibly large number of hardened sinners he brought to repentance; by his sermons he converted Jews and Heretics, and opened the eyes of frivolous people to the vanities of the world; and this often with very few words. Thus a youth who, out of desire to gain honor and riches, studied jurisprudence and Canon Law, he alienated from the love of all earthly things, by addressing to him the following words: “Francis, you will study law; you will become a great Doctor, and after that an eminent Councillor or Prelate of the Church: you will gain honor and riches; but what then? What will happen then?” These oft repeated words; “but what then? what will happen then?” and the thought they awakened, that death would surely follow, changed the youth into quite a different being, and induced, him to enter the clerical state.
To oppose heresy more effectually, which at that time was gaining ground, St. Philip persuaded the celebrated Caesar Baronius to write the history of the Church. For the better instruction of the Catholics, as well as to strengthen them in the true faith and excite them to the practice of all Christian virtues, he founded a Clerical Congregation, the members of which were obliged, by daily preaching and devout conferences, by unweariedly hearing confessions and other spiritual labors, to advance the salvation of their fellow-men. Towards the Divine Mother he entertained the most tender devotion, and endeavored also to gain her the hearts of others, with the words: “My dear Children, honor the mother of Our Lord, love the Blessed Virgin.” The prayer which he most frequently repeated was: “O Mary, Mother of Our Lord! pray to Christ for me! O Virgin! O Mother!” The lives of the Saints were his great delight and his study was to imitate them.
In his love to the poor he showed a more than fatherly heart. No beggar was allowed to leave him without having received alms. He even carried alms to those houses where it was manifested to him by divine revelation that need and poverty dwelt. Once, when going on one of these charitable missions during the night, he fell into so deep a pit, that according to human calculation, he should have met his death; but his guardian Angel protected him and helped him out of the pit. At another time, a beggar covered with miserable rags met him, asking alms. Philip gave him all he had, and at the same moment, the beggar vanished, saying: “I desired only to see what you would do.”
He preserved his purity unspotted until his death. The danger of losing it he warded off with Christian fortitude. His functions as priest were once required by a woman who pretended to be sick and desirous of confessing. No sooner, however, had he appeared, than she tried to seduce him to vice; but the saint fled from her, and hastened down the staircase and out of the house. At another time some wicked people concealed two shameless women in the room where Philip had to pass the night. When he entered the room to say his prayers, the two women made their appearance, and so frightened the chaste servant of God, that he would have run away, had not those who had concealed the women in his room locked the door on the outside. Throwing himself upon his knees, he called upon God fervently to come to his aid that neither of the women had the courage to speak a word, except to beg his pardon, promising that they would change their lives.
He had the gift of distinguishing the pure from the impure by the sense of smell. When he spoke to any one who was impure, he experienced such a stench that he had to hold handkerchief before his nose. He therefore said to more than one dissipated youth whom he met: “You savor ill, my son, you savor ill.” He, on the contrary perceived the most agreeable odor from those whose life was pure.
Notwithstanding his being favored with these and many other gifts, he yet lived in continual humiliation before God and men. He not only evaded idle praise, but rather sought to make himself despicable to others. One, day, on meeting St. Felix, a Capuchin Friar, who was carrying a bottle of wine, he asked for a drink: and having taken it openly on the street, in presence of a great many persons, he placed his own hat upon St. Felix’s head and went home bare-headed; which of course gave to many an occasion to laugh at him and deride him. He often cried to God: “Lord, leave me not; as otherwise I shall this day, like Judas, betray you.” Such was his mistrust in his own moral strength. During a dangerous sickness, he was advised to call on God in the words of St. Martin; “Lord, if I am needful to Thy people, I will not refuse to labor for Thee, &c.” But he answered: “I will not do it; for I am not one who can think himself necessary to a single human being. I should deserve eternal punishment if I could imagine anything like it.” His patience, when assailed by the most unjust persecutions and slanders, was invincible. When a great wrong had been done to him, he went into the Church of St. Peter, and there offered a long prayer for his enemies and persecutors. During the most painful maladies, he praised and thanked God, saying frequently: “Lord, increase the suffering, but with it the patience.” In the last year but one of his life a mortal sickness befell him, but when every one thought that he could not live a moment longer, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him (as had often happened), and immediately restored him to health. (2)
Saint Philip Neri
Love of God—but a love of the most ardent kind, and one that communicated itself to all that came near him—was our Saint’s characteristic virtue. All the Saints loved God; for the love of God is the first and greatest of the commandments: but St. Philip’s whole life was, in an especial manner, the fulfillment of this divine precept. His entire existence seemed to be but one long transport of love for his Creator; and had it not been for a miracle of God’s power and goodness, this burning love would have soon put an end to his mortal career. He was in his 29th year, when one day—it was within the Octave of Pentecost—he was seized with such a vehemence of divine charity that two of his ribs broke, thus making room for the action of the heart to respond freely to the intensity of the love of the soul. The fracture was never healed; it caused a protrusion which was distinctly observable; and owing to this miraculous enlargement of the region of the heart, St. Philip was enabled to live fifty years more, during which time he loved his God with a fervor and strength which would do honor to one already in Heaven.
This seraph in human flesh was a living answer to the insults heaped upon the Catholic Church by the so-called Reformation. Luther and Calvin had called Holy Church the harlot of Babylon; and yet She had, at that very time, such children as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Philip Neri of Rome, to offer to the admiration of mankind. But Protestantism cared little or nothing for piety or charity; its great object was throwing off the yoke of restraint. Under pretense of religious liberty, it persecuted them that adhered to the true Faith; it forced itself by violence where it could not enter by seduction; but it never aimed at or thought of leading men to love their God. The result was that wheresoever it imposed its errors, devotedness was at an end—we mean that devotedness which leads man to make sacrifices for God or for his neighbor. A very long period of time elapsed after the Reformation before Protestantism ever gave a thought to the infidels who abounded in various parts of the globe… but anything like the devotedness of Catholic institutions is an impossibility for Protestantism, were it only for this reason, that its principles are opposed to the Evangelical Counsels, which are the great sources of the spirit of sacrifice, and are prompted by a motive of the love of God.
Glory, then, to St. Philip Neri, one of the worthiest representatives of charity in the 16th century! It was owing to his zeal that Rome and Christendom at large were replenished with a new life by the frequentation of the Sacraments and by the exercises of Catholic piety. His word, his very look, used to excite people to devotion. His memory is still held in deep veneration, especially in Rome, where his Feast was kept with the greatest solemnity. He shares with Ss. Peter and Paul the honor of being Patron of the Holy City. Formerly, on his Feast, the Pope went, with great solemnity, to the Church of St. Mary in Vallicella, and paid the debt of gratitude which the Holy See owes to the Saint who accomplished such great things for the glory of our Holy Mother the Church.
He was almost continually visited by Our Lord with raptures and ecstasies; he was gifted with the spirit of prophecy, and could read the secrets of the conscience. His virtues were such as to draw souls to him by an irresistible charm. The youth of Rome, rich and poor, used to flock to him. Some he warned against danger; others he saved, after they had fallen. The poor and sick were the object of his unceasing care. He seemed to be everywhere in the city by his works of zeal, which gave an impulse to piety that has never been forgotten.
St. Philip was convinced that one of the principal means for maintaining the Christian spirit is preaching the word of God: hence he was most anxious to provide the faithful with apostolic men, who would draw them to God by good and solid preaching. He established, under the name of The Oratory, an institute, the object of which is to encourage Christian piety among the people. By founding it, St. Philip aimed at securing the services, zeal, and talent of priests who are not called to the Religious life, but who, by uniting their labors together, would produce great good to the souls of men.
Thus did he afford to priests, whose vocation did not lead them to the Religious state, the great advantages of a common rule and mutual good example, which are such powerful aids both in the service of God and in the exercise of pastoral duties. But the holy Apostle was a man of too much faith not to have an esteem of the Religious life as a state of perfection. He never lost an opportunity of encouraging a vocation to that holy state. The Religious Orders were indebted to him for so many members, that his intimate friend and admirer, St. Ignatius of Loyola, used playfully to compare him to a bell, which calls others to the chapel (of the Religious life), yet never goes in itself!
The awful crisis of the 16th century, through which the Christian world had to pass, and which robbed the Catholic Church of so many provinces, was a source of keenest grief to St. Philip during the whole of his life. His heart bled at seeing so many thousands of souls fall into the abyss of error and heresy. He took the deepest interest in the efforts that were made to reclaim those that had been led astray by the pretended Reformation. He kept a watchful eye on the tactics wherewith Protestantism sought to maintain its ground. The Centuries of Magdeburg, for example, suggested to his zeal a counterbalance of truth. The Centuries was a series of historical essays, whereby the Reformers sought to prove that the Catholic Church had changed the ancient faith, and introduced superstitious practices in the place of those that were used in the early ages of Christianity. A work like this, with its falsified quotations, its misrepresentation and its frequent invention of facts, was destined to do great injury; and St. Philip resolved to meet it by a work of profound erudition—a true history, compiled from authentic sources. One of the fathers of his Oratory, Caesar Baronius, was just the man for such an undertaking; and St. Philip ordered him to take the field against the enemy. The Ecclesiastical Annals were the fruit of this happy thought; and Baronius himself, at the beginning of Book VIII, acknowledges that St. Philip was the originator of the work. Centuries have passed away since then. It is easy for us, with the means which we now have, to detect certain imperfections in the Annals; at the same time, it is acknowledged on all sides that they form by far the truest and finest History of the Church of the first 1200 years—which is as far as the learned Cardinal went. Heresy felt the injury it must needs sustain by such a History. The sickly and untrustworthy erudition of the Centuriators could not stand before an honest statement of facts; and we may safely assert that the progress of Protestantism was checked by the Annals of Baronius, which showed that the Church was then as She had ever been—the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3: 15). St. Philip’s sanctity and Baronius’ learning secured the victory. Numerous conversions soon followed, consoling the Church for the losses She had sustained. And if in more recent times many have returned to the ancient Faith, it is but fair to attribute the movement (especially the Oxford movement), in part at least, to the success of the historical method begun by the Annals.
Let us now read the liturgical account of the virtues and holy deeds of the Apostle of Rome in the 16th century:
He was ever languishing with the love of God, wherewith he was wounded. Such was the ardor that glowed within him, that his heart was not able to keep within its place, and his breast was miraculously enlarged by the breaking and expansion of two of his ribs. Sometimes, when celebrating Mass, or engaged in fervent prayer, he was seen to be raised up in the air, and encircled with a bright light. He served the needy and the poor with an all-providing charity. He was once rewarded by a visit from an angel, who appeared to him in a beggar’s garb, and received an alms from him. On another occasion, when carrying loaves to the poor during the night, he fell into a deep hole, but was drawn forth by an angel without having sustained any injury. So humble was he, that he had an abiding dread of everything that savored of honor; and he was most resolute in refusing every ecclesiastical dignity, though the highest offices were more than once offered to him.
He possessed the gift of prophecy, and could miraculously read the inmost thoughts of others’ souls. Throughout his whole life he preserved his chastity unsullied. He had also a supernatural power of distinguishing those who were chaste from those who were not so. He sometimes appeared to persons who were at a distance, and assisted them in moments of danger. He restored to health many that were sick and at death’s door. He also restored a dead man to life. He was frequently favored with apparitions of heavenly spirits and of the Blessed Mother of God. He saw the souls of several persons ascending, amidst great brightness, into Heaven. At length, being in his eightieth year, he slept in the Lord; it was in the year of our Redemption 1595, the eighth of the Kalends of June (May 25), the Feast of Corpus Christi, after having offered Mass with extraordinary spiritual joy, and at the very hour which he had foretold, which was shortly after midnight. The miracles wherewith he had been honored being authentically proved, he was canonized by Pope Gregory XV.
Thy whole life, O St. Philip, was one long act of love of Jesus; but it was also one untiring effort to make others know and love Him, and thus secure the end for which they were created. Thou wast the indefatigable Apostle of Rome for forty years, and no one could approach thee without receiving something of the divine ardor that filled thy heart. We too would fain receive of thy fullness of devotion; and therefore we pray thee to teach us how to love our Risen Jesus. It is not enough that we adore Him and rejoice in His triumph—we must love Him; for He has permitted us to celebrate the various mysteries of His life on earth, with a view to our seeing more and more clearly how deserving He is of our warmest love. It is love that will lead us to the full appreciation of His Resurrection, that bright mystery which shows us all the riches of the Sacred Heart. The new life which He put on by rising from the tomb, teaches us more eloquently than ever how tenderly He loves us, and how earnestly He importunes us to love Him in return. Pray for us, St. Philip, that our heart and our flesh may rejoice in the Living God (Ps. 83: 2). Now that we have relished the mystery of the Pasch, lead us to that of the Ascension; prepare our souls to receive the Holy Ghost at Pentecost; and when the august Mystery of the Eucharist beams upon us, with all its loveliness, in the approaching festival of Corpus Christi, the very day that ushered thee unto the unveiled vision of thy Jesus, intercede for us, that we may receive and relish that Living Bread, which giveth life to the world (John 6: 33).
The sanctity that shone on thee, O St. Philip, was marked by the impetuosity of thy soul’s longing after God; and all they that spoke with thee, quickly imbibed thy spirit—which, in truth, is the one that contents our Redeemer’s Heart. Thou hadst the talent of winning souls, and leading them to perfection by the path of confidence and generosity. In this great work, thy method consisted in having none; thus imitating the Apostles and ancient Fathers, and trusting to the power of God’s own word. It was by thee that the frequentation of the Sacraments was restored—that surest indication of the Christian spirit. Pray for the faithful of our times, and come to the assistance of so many souls that are anxiously pursuing systems of spirituality which have been coined by the hands of men, and which but too frequently retard or even impede the intimate union of the creature with his Creator.
Thy love of the Church, O St. Philip, was most fervent: there can be no true sanctity without it. Though thy contemplation was of the sublimest kind, yet it did not make thee lose sight of the cruel trials which this holy Spouse of Christ had to endure in those sad times. The successful efforts of heresy stimulated they zeal; obtain for us that keen sympathy for our holy Faith which will make us take an interest in all that concerns its progress. It is not enough for us that we save our own souls; we must, moreover, ardently desire and do our utmost to obtain the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth, the extirpation of heresy, and the exaltation of our Holy Mother the Church. If these are not our dispositions, how can we call ourselves children of God? May thy example urge us to take to heart the sacred cause of our common Mother. Pray too for the Church militant, of which thou wast one of the bravest soldiers. (3)
A Corpus Christi death On the Feast of Corpus Christi, 25 May 1595, Philip was in a radiantly happy mood, and his physician told him that he had not looked so well for ten years. He alone realized that his hour had come.
All day he heard confessions and saw visitors as usual. About midnight, he had a severe haemorrhage and the fathers in the house were called to his bedside. Unable to speak, Philip raised his hand, and in the act of benediction passed to his reward. He had reached the age of eighty and his work was done.
His body rests today in the NewChurch, Chiesa Nuova, which the Oratorians still serve. Six years later he was beatified; Pope Gregory XV canonized him in 1622. (7)
Image: Carlo maratta, san filippo neri orante davanti a maria (10)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff
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