The Second Apostle of Rome
Saint Philip Neri stands like a giant among the saints, a magnificent and singular character who bore in himself many opposites, many seeming contradictions, in complete harmony. His character was of such immensity that he merited to be named the "Second Apostle of Rome."
Born in 1515 to a wealthy Florentine family, Philip was duly educated. From a young age he was pious, praying the psalms with his sister as a boy, and he was formed intellectually under magnificent scholars. He was also a bit of a joker, and he remained so his whole life. At 16, he was sent to do business with a family member near Monte Cassino; much of his time was spent praying in secret in a little chapel there, though he never neglected and even excelled at his duties. Finally, he decided to leave for Rome, and he set up as a lay hermit, paying for his keep by tutoring. For 17 years he remained a layman; he help the poor and spent hours in prayer, also studying philosophy for a time (though when he felt he had learned enough, he sold his books to give more to the poor). His reputation for sanctity grew as he visited hospitals alone, and soon others joined him. Later he also began to meet people in workshops, banks, stores, and public areas, preaching a greater openness to the service of God. His interior life was marked by fasting (bread and water only), minimalist furnishing, and the discipline. His prayer took place in nearby churches incessantly, and on one occasion in 1544, soon before Pentecost, he experienced one of his most magnificent miracles: a ball of fire entered his mouth after he had beseeched the Holy Spirit for His gifts. The ball of fire expanded his heart in his breast, breaking two of his ribs, but with no pain. This was the gift of divine charity, which enabled him to love almost as God loves.
He founded the nucleus of what would become the Oratory, taking care of the training of young men and boys, and organizing regular meetings of prayer, hymns, and reflections. In 1551, he was at last ordained a priest at the urging of his confessor. Upon ordination, his confessions became highly sought out, and he labored in the confessional from daybreak (later expanding this to include two scores of people shortly before dawn) to noon, when he would say his Mass, usually with ecstasies and all manner of mystical experiences. Eventually, his regular meetings transformed into the Oratory, a congregation of secular priests bound by no vows but committed to mutual charity. This order was approved by the pope after a brief period of harassment and needless persecution of St. Philip by some malefactors. The congregation overcame and grew in size, eventually requiring a new church. St. Philip established that other houses following his pattern would be autonomous, without a Superior General, since there was no "rule" for his group anyway except that of charity. After some years of illness and suffering, on May 25, 1595, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Philip breathed his last and gave his final blessing.
St. Philip Neri's sanctity cried out to the heavens, giving glory to God, for he was a paradox of a man, a combination of seemingly disparate expressions of one holiness: both intimidatingly ascetic and wonderfully festive; solemn about the things of God and yet full of jokes, humor, and laughter; a quiet observer of political events by temperament and yet of heavy influence over important persons; and a religious founder and yet profoundly without regard for modern and sophistication in governance. Above all, he was beloved; his heart was three times greater than any other's, and his soul radiated the divine charity as had scarcely been done since the time of the apostles. He is truly a contender for the title of "greatest saint." Let this brief biography fill you with awe at the life of a servant who lived like no one else before or since.
- Rev. Fr. V. J. Matthews
- TAN Books
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