Category Archives: Philip Neri

May 26 – St Philip Neri, CO, Apostle of Joy & Holy Fools, 1 Cor 1:25

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-“St Philip Neri & the Virgin”, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, between 1739-1740

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-by Br Philip Neri Reese, OP

“The doorbell rang. (anachronism)

Most of the guests had already arrived. Rome’s elite filled a bustling main hall. Very powerful cardinals struggled to hear the very rich men to whom they spoke. The din died down, however, as a very pale butler (anachronism) announced the party’s very newest arrival: A man missing half his beard. “Fr. Philip Neri,” the pallid butler proclaimed.

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According to the people of Rome, the man was a living saint. According to the cultured, cultivated eyes of his onlookers, he was a lunatic. Moreover, there was no mistaking it for an accident. The famed priest had neatly trimmed his beard on one side of his face, and meticulously removed it on the other.

The rest of the night passed awkwardly, especially for the party’s host, to whom the preposterous priest assiduously attached himself until party’s-close. Upon leaving, most of the guests made two resolutions: (1) avoid that priest at all costs, and (2) never attend another party thrown by the host again. At this point you might ask yourself: Why the beard-shaving?

It would be true for me to say that God gave St. Philip Neri the gift to read souls (to see someone’s virtues and vices), and that, when the party’s host had extended him the invitation to come, St. Philip had seen immediately that the man only wanted him there so that the Roman elite would see their host standing beside a reputed saint.

But that would not be the answer.

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St. Philip Neri did not shave off half his beard and attend an A-list party simply to teach a prideful and vain man a lesson (though that it certainly did). He did it to look like a fool.

I imagine for most of us that’s an unsettling answer, but there it is. And St. Philip Neri wasn’t alone. The Church has a rich tradition of “holy fools,” men and women whose intense sanctity comes tied hand-and-foot to their extreme self-abasement. St. Simeon Salos was known to drag a dead dog behind him; St. David the Dendrite lived in a tree for three years; and St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent thirty years in a state of voluntary homelessness, sleeping among the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome.

What do we do with stories like these? What do we do with Saints like these?

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I think we’re supposed to marvel at them. Scripture says that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” and “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (see 1 Cor 1:18-25). Saints such as these give us shocking and abrasive opportunities to believe it. Purely human reason, purely human prudence, cannot comprehend the actions of holy fools. In fact, even for people with the Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom (and that includes every Christian in a state of sanctifying grace) it can be tough to make out the divine reason behind the apparent folly. But the holy fools do make clear one thing: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

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St. Philip Neri did a lot of things we can relate to: he gave young people wholesome alternatives to the lascivious entertainment of the carnivals; he invited musicians and composers to offer their art to God; he praised cheerfulness as a far more religious temperament than solemnity. But he also did a lot of things that, on a purely human level, we cannot relate to. And that’s ok.

In fact, it might well be those things that are the most important. The holy fools thought so little of themselves – lived lives of such awe-inspiring humility – that mere human reason cannot comprehend what that would be like.

And praise God for it. Because if we cannot wrap our minds around these holy fools, how much more will God transcend our wildest dreams?”

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“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.” -Saint Philip Neri , CO

O holy St. Philip Neri, patron saint of joy, you who trusted Scripture’s promise that the Lord is always at hand and that we need not have anxiety about anything, in your compassion heal our worries and sorrows and lift the burdens from our hearts. We come to you as one whose heart swells with abundant love for God and all creation. Hear us, we pray, especially in this need (make your request here). Keep us safe through your loving intercession, and may the joy of the Holy Spirit which filled your heart, St. Philip, transform our lives and bring us peace. Amen.


Prayer to Know and Love Jesus

-by St. Philip Neri

“My Lord Jesus, I want to love You but You cannot trust me. If You do not help me, I will never do any good. I do not know You; I look for You but I do not find You. Come to me, O Lord. If I knew You, I would also know myself. If I have never loved You before, I want to love You truly now. I want to do Your will alone; putting no trust in myself, I hope in You, O Lord. Amen.”

Love,
Matthew

May 26 – St Philip Neri, CO, (1515-1595) – Apostle of Rome, “A joyful heart…”

If one had to choose one saint who showed the humorous side of holiness that would be Philip Neri.  “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one”, he often said.  Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise.   As the Council of Trent was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality.

He was born in Florence on July 22, 1515, the youngest child of Francesco, a lawyer, and his wife Lucrezia da Mosciano, whose family were nobility in the service of the state. Neri was carefully brought up, and received his early teaching from the Dominican friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He was accustomed in later life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two of them, Zenobio de’ Medici and Servanzio Mini.  He showed the impulsiveness and spontaneity of his character from the time he was a boy. In fact one incident almost cost him his life. Seeing a donkey loaded with fruit for market, the little boy had barely formed the thought of jumping on the donkey’s back before he had done it. The donkey, surprised, lost his footing, and donkey, fruit, and boy tumbled into the cellar with the boy winding up on the bottom! Miraculously he was unhurt.

Philip’s own father was not successful financially, and, at the age of 18, Philip was sent to his uncle, Romolo, a wealthy merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town near the base of Monte Cassino, to assist him in his business, and with the hope that he might inherit his uncle’s fortune.  He did gain Romolo’s confidence and affection, but soon after coming to San Germano Philip had a conversion. During this time, Philip found a favorite place to pray up in the fissure of a mountain that had been turned into a Dominican chapel. We don’t know anything specific about his conversion but during these hours of prayer he decided to leave worldly success behind and dedicate his life to God.  He chose to relocate to Rome in 1533.

After thanking his uncle, upon arriving in Rome he was the live-in tutor of the sons of a fellow Florentine, Galeotto Caccia, an aristocrat.  He studied philosophy and theology under the Augustinians, until he thought his studies were interfering with his prayer life. He then stopped his studies, threw away his books, and lived as a kind of hermit.

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Night was his special time of prayer. After dark he would go out in the streets, sometimes to churches, but most often into the catacombs of St. Sebastiano to pray. During one of these times of prayer he felt a globe of light enter his mouth and sink into his heart. This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers.

In 1548 Philip formed a confraternity with other laymen to minister to pilgrims who came to Rome without food or shelter. The spiritual director of the confraternity convinced Philip that he could do even more work as a priest. After receiving instruction from this priest, Philip was ordained in 1551.

At his new home, the church of San Girolamo, he learned to love to hear confessions. Young men especially found in him the wisdom and direction they needed to grow spiritually. But Philip began to realize that these young men needed something more than absolution; they needed guidance during their daily lives. So Philip began to ask the young men to come by in the early afternoon when they would discuss spiritual readings and then stay for prayer in the evening. The numbers of the men who attended these meetings grew rapidly. In order to handle the growth, Philip and a fellow priest, Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, gave a more formal structure to the meetings and built a room called the Oratory to hold them in.

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Philip understood that it wasn’t enough to tell young people not to do something — you had to give them something to do in its place. So at Carnival time, when the worst excesses were encouraged, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches with a picnic accompanied by instrumental music for the mid-day break. After walking twelve miles in one day everyone was too tired to be tempted!

In order to guide his followers, Philip made himself available to everyone at any hour — even at night. He said some of the most devout people were those who had come to him at night. When others complained, Philip answered, “They can chop wood on my back so long as they do not sin.”

Not everyone was happy about this growing group and Philip and Buonsignore were attacked by the priests they lived with. But eventually Philip and his companions were vindicated and went on with their work.

In 1555, the Pope’s Vicar accused Philip of “introducing novelties” and ordered him to stop the meetings of the Oratory. Philip was brokenhearted but obeyed immediately. The Pope only let him start up the Oratory again after the sudden death of his accuser. Despite all the trouble this man had caused, Philip would not let anyone say anything against the man or even imply that his sudden death was a judgment from God.

One church, for Florentines in Rome, had practically forced him to bring the Oratory to their church. But when gossip and accusations started, they began to harass the very people they had begged to have nearby! At that point, Philip decided it would be best for the group to have their own church. They became officially known as the Congregation of the Oratory, made up of secular priests and clerics.

Philip was known to be spontaneous and unpredictable, charming and humorous.

He seemed to sense the different ways to bring people to God. One man came to the Oratory just to make fun of it. Philip wouldn’t let the others throw him out or speak against him. He told them to be patient and eventually the man became a Dominican. On the other hand, when he met a condemned man who refused to listen to any pleas for repentance, Philip didn’t try gentle words, but grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground. The move shocked the criminal into repentance and he made a full confession.

Humility was the most important virtue he tried to teach others and to learn himself. Some of his lessons in humility seem cruel, but they were tinged with humor like practical jokes and were related with gratitude by the people they helped. His lessons always seem to be tailored directly to what the person needed. One member who was later to become a cardinal was too serious and so Philip had him sing the Miserere, Psalm 51, the Psalm of repentance, at a wedding breakfast. When one priest gave a beautiful sermon, Philip ordered him to give the same sermon six times in a row so people would think he only had one sermon.  St Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship.

Philip preferred spiritual mortification to physical mortification. When one man asked Philip if he could wear a hair shirt, Philip gave him permission — if he wore the hair shirt outside his clothes! The man obeyed and found humility in the jokes and name-calling he received.

There were unexpected benefits to his lessons in humility. Another member, Baronius, wanted to speak at the meetings about hellfire and eternal punishment. Philip commanded him instead to speak of church history. For 27 years Baronius spoke to the Oratory about church history. At the end of that time he published his talks as a widely respected and universally praised books on ecclesiastical history!

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Philip did not escape this spiritual mortification himself. As with others, his own humbling held humor. There are stories of him wearing ridiculous clothes or walking around with half his beard shaved off. The greater his reputation for holiness the sillier he wanted to seem. When some people came from Poland to see the great saint, they found him listening to another priest read to him from joke books.

Philip was very serious about prayer, spending hours in prayer. He was so easily carried away that he refused to preach in public and could not celebrate Mass with others around. But when asked how to pray his answer was, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you.”  Amen. Amen.

Philip died in 1595 after a long illness at the age of eighty years.

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– St Philip Neri’s effigy at his tomb in the Chiesa Nuova

We often worry more about what others think than about what God thinks. Our fear of people laughing at us often stops us from trying new things or serving God. Do something today that you are afraid might make you look a little ridiculous. Then reflect on how it makes you feel. Pray about your experience with God.  Or, if you’re like me, just be yourself!  

Prayer:
Saint Philip Neri, we take ourselves far too seriously most of the time. Help us to add humor to our perspective — remembering always that humor is a gift from God. Amen

Cheerfulness is an important part of holiness. St. Philip Neri’s story teaches us that the way to be really happy is to put God and other people first in our lives. If we only think about ourselves we’ll never feel satisfied.  Laughter is not much heard in churches: perhaps that is to be expected… but outside church, Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy, that God bothered to make us, and that He continues to love us despite the fools and sinners we are, or, at least, certainly me. Everyone is a sinner, but Christians are sinners redeemed – an outrageous, undeserved rescue and act of Divine Love that we make even less deserved by everything we do. It is too serious a matter to be serious about: all we can reasonably do is rejoice.

Which reminds me of a joke…”Take my…”, no, not that one, “Two Irish guys…”, not that one either.  Why can angels fly?….Because they take themselves so lightly!  

Many people wrongly feel that such an attractive and jocular personality as Philip’s cannot be combined with an intense spirituality. Philip’s life melts our rigid, narrow views of piety. His approach to sanctity was truly catholic, all-embracing and accompanied by a good laugh. Philip always wanted his followers to become not less but more human through their striving for holiness.

Philip Neri prayed, “Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”

Love,
Matthew