Today is the memorial of a truly remarkable saint, St. Philip Neri, the Apostle of Rome and founder of the Congregation of the Oratory (link in Italian). Coming on the heels of Memorial Day, it is also noteworthy that St. Philip Neri is the patron saint of the US Army Special Forces.
St. Philip Neri was born in Florence, Italy, in 1515. Although his father, a notary, was not rich, St. Philip Neri’s family did rank with nobility. However, the young man gave it up to become an Apostle to Rome. Although Rome was the center of the Church, it was also the center of the Renaissance culture; and there was indeed a great need of apostles there.
As a young man, living meagerly in Rome, St. Philip Neri would engage in Christian charity through service in hospitals, ministering to the sick. He would invite people to join him; and soon, he was roamin’ Rome (so to speak). He would search out groups of people and engage them in conversation, eventually turning the discussion to Christ and holiness.
Filled With the Love of God
St. Philip Neri would also frequent the catacombs to pray at the tombs of the Christian martyrs. It was in 1544, in the catacombs, that the famous Miracle of the Heart of St. Philip Neri took place. While he was praying for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, a fiery globe appeared. It went into St. Philip Neri’s mouth, and he swallowed it. This globe — the fire of love for God — lodged in his heart, swelling it as big as a fist, as it remained all his life. After his death, the doctors who examined him said that two of his ribs actually had cracked and then healed in an arc around the bigger heart. That’s why paintings/icons of him (see above) often show a flaming heart.
Becoming a Priest
Up to this point, St. Philip Neri was still a layman. But, in 1551, God called him to the priesthood. Soon, his over-riding mission was to promote BOTH frequent Confession and reception of Holy Eucharist. He also emphasized the Forty Hours Devotion of the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Philip Neri was tireless in administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He would usually begin hearing confessions before dawn in his cell; and he would continue at the church until after noon. It was not unusual for St. Philip Neri to remind penitents of forgotten (or withheld) sins.
It has also been noted that while saying Mass, St. Philip Neri was so caught up in ecstasy that he would levitate.
The Congregation of the Oratory
In the afternoons, St. Philip Neri would gather in informal meetings with young men from around the city. Together, they would pray; he would give a sermon; they would start a theological discussion; and continue it through the evening in walks around the city. Often, they would visit the city’s churches. These meetings soon attracted even bishops and cardinals, including the person who would become Pope Gregory XVI.
Other Events and His Death
Very interestingly, France may have been saved as a Catholic nation through the efforts of St. Philip Neri. The king of France, King Henry IV — the first Bourbon king; after which family New Orleans’ Bourbon Street is named — had been excommunicated and placed under anathema by Pope Clement VIII during the French Religious Wars.
The French king had previously abjured Catholicism and became a Huguenot (or French Calvinist). However, Henry IV then repented and returned to the Church (famously saying, “Paris is worth a Mass”, so I don’t know how deep his conversion truly was). St. Philip Neri persuaded Pope Clement to lift the excommunication, saying that it would only serve to push Henry IV back to Protestantism and restart the wars.
St. Philip Neri died on May 25, 1595, after predicting the time of his death and giving his congregation a final blessing.
To learn more about St. Philip Neri, visit these sources:
- the article from the Catholic Encyclopedia (which I used extensively)
- Wikipedia’s article (which I also relied heavily upon)
- the biography from SQPN.com (Star Quest Production Network)
- EWTN’s article (taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints)
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.