May 25, 2017

Saint Philip Neri, Priest, the Third Apostle of Rome

Saint Philip Neri

Saint Teresa of Avila was reported to have said, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, Lord deliver us.” Though he probably never heard those words, one of her contemporaries, Saint Philip Neri, lived as if he had. This delightful man, known as “the cheerful saint,” believed that a life of humility and piety did not exclude a person from having a sense of lightheartedness. If anything, he had a profound appreciation of humor as a Godly gift, to be used for spiritual renewal.

St. Philip Neri was born in Florence, Italy, in 1515. As a young man, he was sent away to live with an older cousin to learn the family business. It was soon evident that this was not the vocation God had in mind for him. Philip became a tutor, eking out a living while studying theology and philosophy. Three years later, he decided, out of humility, not to pursue ordination to the priesthood. Instead, he would spend the next thirteen years of his life actively engaged in contemplation, prayer and service to the least of God's people, especially the poor and the sick.

Philip loved to pray, especially at night. During one of these nocturnal vigils, in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian in 1544, a remarkable thing happened: Philip felt the Holy Spirit, as a globe of light, enter his mouth and sink to his heart. So filled was he with love for God and a burning desire to serve Him, that his heart literally expanded. An autopsy performed after his death revealed that two of his ribs had been broken and reshaped into an arch to accommodate the change.

The Church was desperately in need of such a heart. The Protestant Reformation had begun two years after Philip’s birth, and the Council of Trent, convened to both solidify the teachings of the Church and reform some of her practices, met for the first time in 1545. Although he had resisted it for years, at the advice of his confessor, Philip finally pursued ordination and became a priest in 1551. He became known as an insightful and charitable confessor himself. It wasn’t long before his ministry attracted many seeking to deepen their relationship with God.

Rather than form a religious order, in 1575, Philip Neri began an Oratory (a community founded for both prayer and service which includes laypeople.) As a confessor, Philip realized people needed not only absolution, but continued spiritual guidance. He concluded that telling penitents not to do something was not enough. They must perform acts of virtue in addition. Consequently, he organized excursions to Rome’s seven churches which included informal talks with penitents. They would pray and sing hymns, before going out to serve those in need. Some condemned such actions as “introducing novelties” into the Church’s spirituality and attacked Philip’s character. Despite this period of trial, eventually his detractors saw the value in his methods. By the time he died at 80 in 1595, he was seen as one of the greatest figures of the Counter-Reformation.

St. Philip Neri is the patron saint of Rome, youth and military special forces. His feast day is May 26th. He was so beloved by the citizens of the Eternal City that he is known as the Third Apostle of Rome, after Saints Peter and Paul. Father, you continually raise up your faithful to the glory of holiness. In your love kindle in us the fire of the Holy Spirit who so filled the heart of Saint Philip Neri. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever. St. Philip Neri. help us to open our hearts to God.

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