St. Philip Neri lived in a positively bonkers period of church history. His time on Earth included the Protestant Revolt, the Council of Trent and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
God raised up many saints during this time, like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St Francis Xavier, and St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Charles Borremeo, who were friends of St. Philip.
May of these saints were called to do amazing things for the world. Philip, however, was called to go to one city, Rome. Instead of converting people who had never heard of the Gospel, his job was to bring life back to a population that had grown lazy and disenchanted with the faith.
He did it. He was known as “the Apostle of Rome”. He was especially known for his cheerfulness and relationships with the people, so it seems only fitting to explore his life through his quotations.
“Well, my brothers, and when shall we begin to do good?”
St. Philip used to ask this of the young men he worked with in Rome. It’s also a fairly accurate summary of his life.
He could have pursued a business career, but chose to live in the attic of a man’s house. He lived the life of a hermit, staying in his small room and only eating a bit of bread and few olives each day. At one point, he went to university to study theology and philosophy. But then he realized that the greatest good he could do was to pray and bring Jesus to the people of Rome. So he did. He walked around and preached in the streets. He even formed a confraternity of laypeople to minister to pilgrims.
“I cannot bear so much, my God, I cannot bear so much, for see, I am dying of it!”
St. Philip had an intimate connection with the heart of Our Lord. One night, when he was praying in the catacombs when a globe of light entered his mouth. He felt it go to his heart, which seemed to grow. Doctors would later discover that two of his ribs were broken by his heart’s expansion. He was overcome with ecstasy, completely consumed by the divine love. Finally, he shouted the above phrase, because the love he felt was too much for him to bear. When he got up, he found a swelling over his heart.
For the rest of his life, whenever he undertook spiritual practices, his heart would palpitate. He was later ordained a priest, and discovered that formerly inconsolable penitents were comforted after laying their heads over his heart. A strange heat came out of his heart, as well, leading him to wear summer clothes even in the depths of winter and still claim to be hot.
“Only let a little Divine Love into their hearts, and then you may leave them to themselves.”
People would ask him how he would keep the young men he was working with away from Carnival and other events that would be a near occasion of sin. He knew that the men already knew that going was wrong, and that receiving a lecture from him probably wouldn’t help matters. Instead, he would come up with other activities to distract them.
“I will have no melancholy, no low spirits at my house.”
St. Philip wasn’t a somber saint. He was in love with Christ, and thrilled to be able to bring him to others. Maybe it was because the fire of God’s love was literally burning in his heart, but he wasn’t somber. He was on a mission of joy. He also understood the grace that possible from a life well-lived. For example, people rarely received Communion during his time. St. Philip encouraged them to receive as often as possible, provided they were predisposed for it. What could be more wonderful than that?
“To desire to give ourselves to prayer without mortification is like a bird trying to fly before it is fledged.”
St. Philip also understood the need for self-mastery and mortification in the Christian life. After all, if you don’t have some degree of control over your own heart, how can you give it away? He embraced harsh fasts, slept on a hard floor and many other mortifications not because he wanted to be hardcore, but because he knew that denying himself luxuries could better dispose him to love. He also embraced suffering, not because he found a way to make the experience of it pleasant, but because he knew that any amount of suffering allowed him to know, and therefore love, Jesus better.
“Silence! The Father is saying Mass”
Toward the end of his life, St. Philip had to stop saying Mass publicly. It wasn’t that he was infirm–rather, he was so lost in rapture that he could no longer have time constraints. He made it through most of his ministry by finding external ways to distract himself during the liturgy, but now he let himself embrace it. After the “Agnus Dei” the server would leave him in his private chapel, lock the doors, and put up a sign saying “Silence! Father is saying Mass.” He would come back after two hours to see if the saint was ready to move forward.