St. Philip Neri,
Founder of the Congregation of the Oratory at Rome
Philip Neri, the celebrated Founder of the far-famed Oratory at Rome, was born in Florence, of very pious parents, in ths year 1515. He was so good in his childhood, that he was known under no other name than that of “the good little Philip.” To his parents he was so obedient, that his father said he had only once in his life occasion to reprove him, and this only for a slight cause; but Philip, thinking he had grieved his father, was so distressed that he wept bitterly. To pray and to be present at a sermon were his only pleasures; the former he continued for hours, and the latter he never neglected. Until his eighteenth year he remained with his father at Florence, when he was sent to Naples, to his uncle, who, being a rich merchant, wished to make Philip his heir. But Philip had no inclination to become a merchant, and with his uncle’s consent, he proceeded to Rome to study theology. At this period, Philip began the austere life which he continued unto his end. He nursed the sick in the hospitals, instructed the poor and the ignorant in religion, visited frequently during the day the seven Churches, and at night the tombs of the holy martyrs, through whose intercession he asked nothing more warmly than a true fervent love of God.
The fervor of his devotion at the time of his prayers was so great, that he tore his garments from his breast, the better to breathe, or laid himself with open breast upon the ground to cool the inward fire-of his love to God. “Oh! my God!” exclaimed he at such times, “O my God, my love! Thou art mine and I am wholly thine. O most adorable God! Thou who hast commanded that I should love Thee; why hast thou given me only one and so narrow a heart?” He was so filled with spiritual comfort, that he often exclaimed: “Leave me, O my Lord, leave me; for human weakness cannot bear such heavenly joys!” On Pentecost, he prayed most devoutly that the Holy Ghost would kindle in his heart the fire of Divine love. During his prayers, his heart was so filled with the ardor of his love, that through its emotion and expansion, two ribs were broken and raised above the others, as was seen with great astonishment after his death. He very seldom said Holy Mass without shedding many tears. He frequently stood for hours before the Altar in raptures, transported out of himself. This happened also to him at other times, and he was seen, while at prayers, raised from the ground and surrounded by a brilliant light. To pass whole nights in prayer was his supreme delight.
With his devotions, however, he did not forget the salvation of souls, for which, out of love to God, he most zealously labored. An almost incredibly large number of hardened sinners he brought to repentance; by his sermons he converted Jews and Heretics, and opened the eyes of frivolous people to the vanities of the world; and this often with very few words. Thus a youth who, out of desire to gain honor and riches, studied jurisprudence and Canon Law, he alienated from the love of all earthly things, by addressing to him the following words: “Francis, you will study law; you will become a great Doctor, and after that an eminent Councillor or Prelate of the Church: you will gain honor and riches; but what then? What will happen then?” These oft repeated words; “but what then? what will happen then?” and the thought they awakened, that death would surely follow, changed the youth into quite a different being, and induced, him to enter the clerical state.
To oppose heresy more effectually, which at that time was gaining ground, St. Philip persuaded the celebrated Caesar Baronius to write the history of the Church. For the better instruction of the Catholics, as well as to strengthen them in the true faith and excite them to the practice of all Christian virtues, he founded a Clerical Congregation, the members of which were obliged, by daily preaching and devout conferences, by unweariedly hearing confessions and other spiritual labors, to advance the salvation of their fellow-men. Towards the Divine Mother he entertained the most tender devotion, and endeavored also to gain her the hearts of others, with the words: “My dear Children, honor the mother of Our Lord, love the Blessed Virgin.” The prayer which he most frequently repeated was: “O Mary, Mother of Our Lord! pray to Christ for me! O Virgin! O Mother!” The lives of the Saints were his great delight and his study was to imitate them.
In his love to the poor he showed a more than fatherly heart. No beggar was allowed to leave him without having received alms. He even carried alms to those houses where it was manifested to him by divine revelation that need and poverty dwelt. Once, when going on one of these charitable missions during the night, he fell into so deep a pit, that according to human calculation, he should have met his death; but his guardian Angel protected him and helped him out of the pit. At another time, a beggar covered with miserable rags met him, asking alms. Philip gave him all he had, and at the same moment, the beggar vanished, saying: “I desired only to see what you would do.”
He preserved his purity unspotted until his death. The danger of losing it he warded off with Christian fortitude. His functions as priest were once required by a woman who pretended to be sick and desirous of confessing. No sooner, however, had he appeared, than she tried to seduce him to vice; but the saint fled from her, and hastened down the staircase and out of the house. At another time some wicked people concealed two shameless women in the room where Philip had to pass the night. When he entered the room to say his prayers, the two women made their appearance, and so frightened the chaste servant of God, that he would have run away, had not those who had concealed the women in his room locked the door on the outside. Throwing himself upon his knees, he called upon God fervently to come to his aid that neither of the women had the courage to speak a word, except to beg his pardon, promising that they would change their lives.
He had the gift of distinguishing the pure from the impure by the sense of smell. When he spoke to any one who was impure, he experienced such a stench that he had to hold handkerchief before his nose. He therefore said to more than one dissipated youth whom he met: “You savor ill, my son, you savor ill.” He, on the contrary perceived the most agreeable odor from those whose life was pure.
Notwithstanding his being favored with these and many other gifts, he yet lived in continual humiliation before God and men. He not only evaded idle praise, but rather sought to make himself despicable to others. One, day, on meeting St. Felix, a Capuchin Friar, who was carrying a bottle of wine, he asked for a drink: and having taken it openly on the street, in presence of a great many persons, he placed his own hat upon St. Felix’s head and went home bare-headed; which of course gave to many an occasion to laugh at him and deride him. He often cried to God: “Lord, leave me not; as otherwise I shall this day, like Judas, betray you.” Such was his mistrust in his own moral strength. During a dangerous sickness, he was advised to call on God in the words of St. Martin; “Lord, if I am needful to Thy people, I will not refuse to labor for Thee, &c.” But he answered: “I will not do it; for I am not one who can think himself necessary to a single human being. I should deserve eternal punishment if I could imagine anything like it.” His patience, when assailed by the most unjust persecutions and slanders, was invincible. When a great wrong had been done to him, he went into the Church of St. Peter, and there offered a long prayer for his enemies and persecutors. During the most painful maladies, he praised and thanked God, saying frequently: “Lord, increase the suffering, but with it the patience.” In the last year but one of his life a mortal sickness befell him, but when every one thought that he could not live a moment longer, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him (as had often happened), and immediately restored him to health.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.