St. Philip Neri, in his own words

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.

St. Philip Neri blessing seminarians. Photo from flickr, uploaded by Lawrence OP.

St. Philip Neri blessing seminarians. Photo from flickr, uploaded by Lawrence OP.

“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.

St. Philip Neri holding the fire that miraculously burned in his chest. Photo from Daughters of St. Philip Neri.

St. Philip Neri holding the fire that miraculously burned in his chest. Photo from the Daughters of St. Philip Neri.

“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.

St. Philip Neri hearing confessions. Overwrought penitents would sometimes lay their heads over his miraculous heart and experience consolation. Photo from the Daughters of St. Philip Neri.

St. Philip Neri hearing confessions. Overwrought penitents would sometimes lay their heads over his miraculous heart and experience consolation. Photo from the Daughters of St. Philip Neri.

“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.

St. Philip Neri is remembered for his joy, which apparently no one told this author. Image from Crux.

St. Philip Neri is remembered for his joy. The artist of this image was apparently not aware of that. Image from Crux. 

“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?

St. Philip Neri with the Virgin. Photo from wikicommons.

St. Philip Neri with the Virgin. Photo from wikicommons.

“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.

St. Philip Neri saying Mass. Those people had probably been there for hours. Photo from wikicommons.

St. Philip Neri saying Mass. Those people had probably been there for hours. Photo from wikicommons.

“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.

COMING UP: Blessed Marcel Callo: The nerd’s alternative to Pier Giorgio

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Blessed Marcel Callo just needs to be more famous. His story is equal parts Pier Giorgio, Maximilian Kolbe,  Romeo Montague, and something that is uniquely his own. He also totally looks like a French Urkel, which I think we can all agree is amazing. In honor of his feast day on October 4, here is his life in blog form:

That kid at youth group

Marcel as a Boy Scout. Image from the Diocese of Fresuj-Toulon

Marcel as a Boy Scout. Image from the Diocese of Fresuj-Toulon

Marcel was the second of nine children. His family was French and poor, but happy, and raised him in the faith. He started working when he was 13, which is when we get one of my favorite insights into him: He was kind of an obnoxious Christian.

His coworkers would make jokes about women, so Marcel refused to have anything to do with them. He also refused to date, saying, “I am not one to amuse myself with the heart of a lady, since my love is pure and noble,” among other things that kind of make me want to take his lunch money. Most of his (very few) biographers try to pass this off as piety, but I think he was just your typical overzealous young Catholic. He would have been the modern equivalent of the teenager who wears 50 saints medals at once and has the techno remix of “Oceans” as their ringtone. He even spent all of his time with his equivalent of a youth group, the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOC), or Young Christian Workers.

The JOC is where Marcel learned to stop being so obnoxious. They stressed the importance of community and intellectual formation, as well as a robust prayer life. Marcel played sports through them, and began to spend 15 minutes a day in quiet prayer and went to Confession every other week. He still wasn’t perfected, as he was known for losing his temper with people who questioned Church teaching. And yet, as he became a leader within the JOC, he started to lighten up. For example, he shocked many elderly parishioners when he and his friends decided to go see a movie on All Soul’s Day. The older people thought the JOC should spend the day in prayer. However, Marcel and his friends managed to see the movie and still get into the Church before the liturgy started.

A very long engagement
Marcel and Maurgerite. Photo from Blessed Marcel Callo Parish in the Diocese of Arras.

Marcel and Maurgerite. Photo from Blessed Marcel Callo Parish in the Diocese of Arras.

However, the JOC wasn’t just a place for Marcel to sass old ladies. It was also where he met the love of his life, Marguerite Derniaux. He waited to ask her out, because he said, “One must master his heart before he can give it to the one that is chosen for him by Christ”. They were engaged, but World War II and his subsequent martyrdom prevented them from ever getting married.

Rennes was bombed on March 8, 1943. Marcel and his JOC friends volunteered to recover bodies and help the injured. Marcel was sifting through the debris of an office building when he recognized his little sister’s leg and shoe sticking out from a pile of debris. He had to break the news to his family.

A few weeks later, Marcel learned that he was being sent to a forced labor camp in Germany. His family would be arrested if he resisted, which would have been especially horrible since his older brother was about to be ordained a priest.  So he went. He told his family that he was going as a missionary, because there was an urgent apostolate waiting for him in the barracks.

Jesus in the barracks

Unfortunately, the reality of forced labor was harder than he had anticipated, but this last round of suffering was what made him a saint. He was sent to a town without a single Catholic Church and forced to help make rockets that were used against his countrymen. He went three months without his family, his fiancee, or the Eucharist, all the while living on starvation rations and recreating the weapons that had killed his own sister. In other words, legalistic lip-service Christianity wasn’t going to work. He developed infected teeth, boils, and headaches from the deplorable conditions.  He sunk into a deep depression.

And then, just when everything seemed hopeless, he encountered Christ. Marcel discovered that Sunday Mass was offered in an obscure room of the barracks. He received the Eucharist for the first time in months and appreciated it like never before. He wrote to Marguerite, “Finally Christ reacted. He made me to understand that the depression was not good. I had to keep busy with my friends and then joy and relief would come back to me.”

Marcel the Missionary

And that’s exactly what he did. He rededicated himself to the prayer life he and Marguerite had established before the war. He also began to organize JOC-inspired activities for his friends in the barracks. They would play sports and cards, perform plays, and pray together. He found a French priest to say Mass for them once a month. In short, he stopped looking at his awful life and instead focused on choosing to love his God and his community. His hope and joy came back and spread to his fellow prisoners.

The S.S. also noticed the change in Marcel. They arrested him on April 19, 1944. While the officers search through his belongings, his friends asked for a reason for his arrest.  One of the officers replied, “Monsieur est trop Catholique” (translation: He is too Catholic).


The Germans interrogated him. He admitted to being a part of the JOC, which the Germans had banned as a clandestine organization. He was sent to the concentration camp at Mathausen. The conditions were even worse than in the forced labor camp, but Marcel knew how to keep his joy. He continued to pray and encourage his fellow prisoners, even as he suffered from bronchitis, malnutrition, dysentary, fever, swellings, and generalized weakness, all in addition to his previous ailments. One prisoner had smuggled in a box of consecrated hosts and was able to give him his final Eucharist, also known as Viatacum.

His joy and hope were present to the end. The latrines at Mathausen were designed so that weaker prisoners would fall into them. Marcel nearly drowned in one, but was pulled out by a Colonel Thibideux. Marcel was too weak to even speak at this point. However, the colonel remembered that even covered in human waste and dying, “there was a holiness in [Marcel’s] eyes. I had never before seen anyone look that way!”


Marcel died on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1945. It was exactly two years after he left France.  The last time he had seen Marguerite was at the train station, when she told him he was going to be a martyr. He told her that he would never be good enough for that. St. John Paul II disagreed, and declared him a martyr for the faith on October 4, 1987. The pope said that like Christ, Marcel “loved until the end, and his entire life became the Eucharist.

“Received into the everlasting joy of God, [Marcel] testifies that the Christian faith cannot separate Heaven from Earth. Heaven is prepared on Earth through justice and love,” the pope said.

“Nourished by prayer, the sacraments, and apostolic action….he built the Church with his brothers, the young Christian workers. It is in the Church that we become Christian, and it is with the Church that we build a new humanity.”***

A man for our generation

And that’s why I love Marcel. He started off as the kind of Christian so many of us are early in our conversion: overzealous, obsessed with vocation, and more interested in looking Catholic than cultivating a deep relationship with Christ.

But then he was stripped of absolutely everything. His little sister was killed, his vocation was snatched away, and he was forced to take the place of German workers who had killed his family. He couldn’t even maintain the prayer and sacramental schedule of his former life. Yet his response was simply to find Christ already present in those dismal surroundings and dedicate himself to bringing others to the Lord. He offered his sufferings for the sake of his brother’s mission as a priest. Even when he was too weak to speak, he changed something in the colonel just by looking at him.

You don’t get that kind of radiance from simply following the rules. It comes from falling deeply, irrevocably in love with Christ, and knowing that his peace and joy are available no matter what happens to you. That’s the kind of twentysomething our world needs.

***My translation; not official