Saint Philip Neri

Author: Antonio Socci


Antonio Socci

It was the year 1532. A 17-year-old Florentine strode boldly down the Via Cassia which crossed Tuscany and led first to Rome, then on down to San Germano, the present Cassino. Probably for the whole journey he had before his blue eyes the vision of what he had left the beloved faces, the hills of Fiesole and San Miniato, covered in cypresses and olives in sight of the River Arno. But the question of his future was also much on Philip's mind—for that was the young man's name.

A lad as clever as Philip could hope, like his contemporaries, for success as an artist by apprenticing himself to one of the many Tuscan masters of the time, painters such as Michelangelo or Leonardo. Or he might cultivate his passion for music, or his intellectual curiosity and become a thinker like Pico della Mirandola. Or yet again, in that city torn apart by clashes between the followers of Savonarola and the Medici, he might throw himself into politics as many were doing, and strive for power. Many young Florentines were venturing into trade. Merchants and bankers were setting themselves up everywhere. Even Philip was on the way to his uncle Romolo who had set up his business in San Germano and was in need of help.

Philip too had smelt the breath of new life which was blowing in Florence at that time.

At bottom, the humanist and renaissance idea centred on human achievement and held up success as the moral ideal. But he didn't know how to deal with his incapacity to "get on", or with sickness, pain and death. And for that matter success itself (like health or youth) was about the most ephemeral thing in the world. As Lorenzo the Magnificent himself agreed in his poem: "Youth, how fine it is/ which however flies away/ let he who will be gay/ for tomorrow there's no surety". The feeling for life hidden in Philip's laughing eyes and behind his lively Florentine humor, in his taste for freedom, was something quite different.

First of all his heart was stirred by an insight, certainly a youthful one but no less genuine for that, something learned from his very devout parents and the friar of San Marco where he had studied: that the Christian life is the only true human experience worth living, that Jesus Christ is the prize of life, the only enduring treasure. Philip's whole personality was built on the decision not to throw himself away not to waste life on things of no value.

Some years later that insight was to become the anthem of the vivacious group of friends who gathered around Philip. One could often come across a band of young men on their way back through the streets of renaissance Rome from trips to the Roman basilicas. They sang in triumphant and mordant glee that most unsettling of biblical verses, the verse from <Ecclesiastes> which goes: "Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas".

Their voices echoed through the streets: Vanity of vanities/ all is vanity/ The whole world is what it be/ everything is vanity" . They went through the verses: "If the world its favor give/ they will let you greatly live/ At death what then for thee?/ Everything is vanity/ If you lived a thousand years/ Healthy, happy and without tears/ At death what then for thee?/ Everything is vanity/ If you have all languages/ And were thought one of the sages/ At death what then for thee?/ Everything is vanity/ If in feasts and song and play/ You now pass every single day/ At death what then for thee?/ Everything is vanity" . The chant went on to end: "So to God turn your heart/ Keep no love from him apart/ That will never lack to thee/ All the rest is vanity" .

Let us go back to the Cassia where we left the 17 year-old Philip heading for San Germano but still unclear about what path to take in life. When he arrived he set about helping his uncle, but the moment he had any time off he went in search of freedom.

He spent whole nights on the Montagna Spaccata at Gaeta staring at the infinity of the sea and the starry sky. Many times he climbed up to Monte Cassino and caught the scent of the infinite in the daily lives of the monks of Saint Benedict.

After a few weeks he came to a decision: he would go to Rome and there, at the center of the world, he would look for his path. When he got there the Eternal City still bore the marks of the dreadful sack by German mercenaries: slaughter, violence, profanation, rape, and financial ruin had reduced the population from 55,000 to 32,000. But the earlier dissolute life was already starting up again at the papal court and in the drawing rooms of the nobility.

Rome had become small, the inhabitants packed into less than one square mile. Two- thirds of the area within the Aurelian Walls were uninhabited. The Colosseum, the Lateran and St. Mary Major were in the open country. One hundred and sixteen trades were practised by the inhabitants, one of the more flourishing being prostitution. According to a census 18 women out of every thousand were involved in it.

Philip did not let himself be disturbed by the "uproar" of the city. He took a room with a Florentine Galeotto Del Caccia, and paid for his board and lodgings by giving lessons to his landlord's children. Meanwhile he was frequenting the University and the Studies of the Augustinians (reading philosophy and theology). He never gave up his freedom. He was a very intelligent young man, by no means gloomy with his university friends and his laughter and taste for joking drew people to him, but he was different from them all, visibly different.

It was as if he were in pursuit of a secret love, searching out its memory in the ancient stones of Rome. He visited the catacombs for days and nights, especially the catacomb of Saint Sebastian and the places where the Christians had been martyred, often having to dodge the criminals who haunted them. He charted a personal pilgrimage going from St. Peter's, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, the basilicas that bore witness to the early centuries of Christianity (a practice that for thousands of Romans was then to become the visit to the "seven churches").

And increasingly he was overcoming his repugnance (he was by instinct a hygienist) of the filthy sewers that were the hospitals there to tend the most wretched and repellent of the sick. It was probably at the hospital of San Giacomo that he first encountered a group of truly special friends. These were the first companions of Ignatius of Loyola, young men who had left behind their "dolce vita" as students at the University of Paris to engage in one of the greatest adventures of the time, the Society of Jesus. Philip became a great friend of Ignatius, who remained in Rome like a general in his headquarters, conducting the battle for the whole planet.

Historians tell of the widespread immorality of Rome of that time, the dissolute popes, almost all of them with children and grandchildren, the vice, the turpitude. But there was a paradox: in that same Rome of those years, which are described as a black time for the Church, we find exceptional saints: Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Philip Neri, Charles Borromeo and Camillo De Lellis (farther afield, in Spain for example, Teresa of Avila was born the very year Philip first saw the light in Florence). When one considers this stuff of sanctity one may well wonder whether it really was a black time for the Church.

For Christians it is a sign that where sin is abundant grace is super-abundant. And it is astonishing to note that popes and cardinals so publicly given over to sin were so able to recognize saints and safeguard the <depositum fidei>.

Luther believed, seeing it from his altogether clerical point of view, that the Church needed reformers, when even then what it needed was saints. He believed that the clergy must change, that simple believers wanted to change their own lives. And next to the saints it is daily life, the place where all great human projects founder, that changes. A great English writer, G.K. Chesterton, has his Father Brown say: "Daily life is the most romantic of adventures and only the Adventurer discovers it". Only the saints.

Philip went around the streets, the markets, the stalls of the Florentine moneylenders joking with the bankers, who were often young men on the make ("When are we going to start doing some good?"). Some of them were struck. In San Girolamo della Carita a score of people began to gather around him, yet he wasn't a priest. They came together "in great affection" to speak about the Christian faith, to pray, to sing, to confess and take Holy Communion (something rare at the time). It all began with that. It is impossible even to outline the whole of his life (Rita Delcroix recounts dozens of episodes from the life of Saint Philip in her book <Filippo Neri, il santo dell'allegria>).

He, and not Savonarola, was the real alternative, however, to modern apostasy.

The simple Christian life of a group of friends became a gust of fresh air blowing through Rome. The practice of the Forty Hours (prolonged adoration before the Eucharist) arose out of the experience of the Oratory, the name given from the beginning to the community around Philip, as did the visit to the "seven churches", which ended up involving thousands of people and which isn't a pilgrimage but simply a way of being together happily, as did the singing of praise in the vernacular, accompanied on the lute, violin, organ, clarinet and trumpet (almost all the most important 16th century composers of sacred music passed through the Oratory). Another of Philip's interests which caught on with his friends was the history of the Church: with his encouragement Cesare Baronio devoted himself to the subject. Later a cardinal, he was also to become the true t founder of Church historiography.

But the one thing Philip and his friends most delighted in were the letters written by the Jesuits, especially by Francis Xavier, from far-off Asia. Their enthusiasm was so great at one point that they were thinking of leaving together for the mission in those lands. But for once Philip decided to ask for advice, going to an old saintly Benedictine monk, Father Ghettini, who told him: "Don't leave, your Indies are in Rome". From then on Philip knew where his destiny lay and as the years passed he became more and more convinced: "Pay attention to Rome. Whoever does good in Rome does good to all and to all the world!".

In 1548 they founded a confraternity, they went to tend the sick in the hospitals and especially the poor who left hospital in pitiable condition. Then they began to look after pilgrims and in 1550, a Holy Year, they arranged hospitality for tens of thousands of pilgrims.

In 1551, when he 36, Philip became a priest on the prompting of his confessor. The number of people who came to join the Oratory was inconceivable. Lower class and nobles, courtesans, gentlewomen idlers, criminals and ordinary people, churchmen and artists converted and followed Philip. And it was no small spectacle, especially in those years, to find cardinals or princes in the filthy Roman hospitals, cleaning the bedding of poor human wretches.

What is impossible to convey is the air of cheerfulness, of affability that was to be breathed around Philip. It was normal to find him playing hopscotch with the kids or in other odd situations. But the one thing he couldn't tolerate was being venerated like a saint and should anyone come along with that attitude it amused him to disconcert them so that they would leave him in peace. With his passion for freedom he never aimed at making rules: everything was guided by a blithe fraternity which had "a shared purse, shared table and everyone ready to take on any task".

Like all the saints he, too, received his dose of ecclesiastical persecution. They accused him of creating sects, at that time the most terrible of accusations. But thanks to the help of Cardinal Charles Borromeo everything settled down. Gregory XIV tried everything to make him cardinal but Philip always refused. He did, however, want to keep the red biretta and used to wear it when playing, jumping or running with his kids—and to those who were taken aback at it he would say: "I'm a real odd fish, don't you think?"

In those years in Rome there was no one in wretchedness, poverty or pain who was not comforted by Philip and his friends. The series of miracles attributed to him was endless, miracles that he nevertheless accepted in all naturalness.

According to the lives of the saint, Philip was praying in the catacombs of San Sebastiano on Whit Sunday 1544 when the Lord manifested himself to him as a globe of fire that penetrated his breast. But he never wanted to speak of the supernatural events that happened to him, trying in every way to hide them or changing the subject with a joke.

In those years would-be mystics and visionaries were springing up like mushrooms and Rome was full of them. Philip was always consciously wary of them. According to Giovanni Francesco Bordini, an Oratorian priest, Philip attributed the majority of these cases " either to the natural infirmity of melancholia, or to impairment of the brain, or again to sickness, and for no good purpose". Even cases of "possession" found him very skeptical. An overwrought father once brought him his daughter who showed symptoms of possession. Philip looked at her and said: "Get your daughter married, she's possessed by nothing else". All his life he preferred to spend his days in the confessional rather than deal with questions of politics. But at least once he decided to "meddle" in a decision. When Henry of Navarre, who had abjured the faith a thousand times, came to power in France the Pope could not be persuaded to re-admit him to the Church. Philip tried hard to convince him, even ordering Baronio Clement VIII's confessor, to refuse the pope absolution until he accepted his advice. The Pope eventually relented and Catholic France was thus saved, it is said, from the tragic prospect of schism. The enterprising young Florentine who came to Rome was to remain in the Eternal City until he was of ripe age.

He died on May 26 1595, 400 years ago.

This article was taken from the No. 5, 1995 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321- 2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.