Feast Day : May 26
Patronage: orators; Rome
Also known as: the Second Apostle of Rome
Philip Romolo Neri was born on July 22, 1515, in Florence, Italy. His father, Francesco Neri, was a notary and also a friend of the Dominicans. At age eight Philip experienced a miracle later said to presage his destiny as a saint. He jumped onto a donkey laden with fruit. Startled, the donkey fell down cellar stairs, landing on top of Philip. His family feared him dead, but Philip emerged completely unharmed. Philip exhibited spiritual interests early in life and received instruction from the Dominican friars at San Marco, but was encouraged toward a career in business. At age 16 he was sent to San Germano to assist his father’s cousin in business. He performed well but preferred to spend time praying with the Benedictine monks of the nearby monastery in Monte Cassino. In 1533 he decided to devote himself to the service of God, left his post and went to Rome without any money. He became a tutor to a family of boys in exchange for room and board. He studied philosophy and theology on his own, and wrote poetry. When he was done with his books, he sold them and gave the money to the poor. After 17 years, Philip began his solitary apostolic work, visiting hospitals, work places and public places to assist those in need and urge others to similar service. He attracted disciples. In 1544 he befriended St. Ignatius of Loyola. Some of his followers joined Ignatius’s new Society of Jesus, but most remained with Philip to form what later became known as the Brotherhood of the Little Oratory. It was also in 1544 that Philip had his pivotal mystical experience. Though he worked in the world, privately he lived like a hermit, practicing severe austerities and spending much time in prayer and contemplation. His single daily meal consisted of bread and water with a few herbs. He disciplined himself with small chains. He successfully coped with great temptations, including those of a diabolical nature. One day before Pentecost in 1544, Philip was keeping a vigil in the catacomb of San Sebastian, and in prayer asked the Holy Spirit to reveal his gifts. Suddenly a great globe of fire appeared and entered him through his mouth, lodging in his heart. He was consumed with an unbearable sensation of heat and fire, and took off his shirt and threw himself on the ground for some time. When he felt recovered, he arose suffused with great joy. Then his body began to shake violently. A swelling about the size of his fist arose at the side of his heart, painless, and remained there for the rest of his life. His heart would beat violently whenever he performed any spiritual action such as saying Mass, hearing confessions or distributing Communion. At such times, observers noticed the saint’s entire body trembling or shaking and could hear his heart pounding like a hammer. He also was hot for the rest of his life, and went about in winter with an open shirt and was hot to the touch of others. After his death, doctors discovered that his heart had actually swelled in size, breaking two ribs, which then formed themselves outward into an arch. In 1548 Philip co-founded, with his confessor Persiano Rosa, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity, devoted to assisting pilgrims and convalescents. Though a layman, Philip preached once a month to members at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament held in the church of San Salvatore. In 1550 Philip began to wonder whether he should retire into solitude. He had a vision of St. John the Baptist and another vision of two souls in glory, one of whom was eating a roll of bread. He interpreted this as a sign that he should continue his work in Rome as though it were his “desert” and abstain as much as possible from meat. In 1551 Persiano persuaded Philip to enter the priesthood. Both men entered the Confraternity of Charity at San Girolamo. There Philip spent much time in the confessional. He could read the minds and hearts of others, telling them of their secret sins without their confessions. He once told a young man there was not a word of truth in his confession, and the youth confessed to lying. He converted one nobleman by showing him a vision of hell. In his private chapel, he entered into ecstasies so long and deep that he seemed to others at the brink of death. Sometimes he was seen enraptured with his face glowing with unearthly radiance. In 1557 Philip was inspired by the example of St. Francis Xavier to go to India, but was advised by a monk whose counsel he sought to make Rome his India, and so changed his mind. He built an oratory over the church at San Girolamo and conducted spiritual exercises. One of his admirers was Cardinal Nicolo Sfondrato, who later tried to make Philip a cardinal when he became Pope Gregory XIV (r. 1590–91). Philip successfully dissuaded him from doing so. Philip’s popularity earned him some resentment, and he was denounced as a “setter-up of new sects.” He was able to clear himself with only minor punishment. In 1564 he reluctantly became the rector of the monastery at San Giovanni, agreeing only on the condition that he could remain at San Girolamo. The spiritual exercises were moved to St. Giovanni in 1574. Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572–85) formally recognized Philip’s order as the Congregation of the Oratory in 1575 and gave to it the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, which was in disrepair. Philip built it anew and went to live there in 1583. Philip was often ill during his last years. He had severe hemorrhages in March and May of 1595 and was given last rites during the second attack, but recovered and resumed his duties. On May 15 he predicted he had 10 more days to live. On May 25, he said Mass and had a good day. But at about 1 A.M. he was heard walking about his room, and then was found lying in bed hemorrhaging again. He received his final blessing and died. He was enshrined in the motherhouse at Santa Maria. He is often portrayed in art with a lily or with an angel with a book. About three years before his death, Philip burned most of his writings. Few of his sonnets survive. Numerous miracles are attested about Philip. Once in 1594 when he was severely ill with fever and was feared to be dying, he suddenly cried out to the Madonna. He was found levitating about a foot above his bed, his arms appearing to embrace someone invisible. He recovered, and said that the Madonna had appeared to him and had restored his health. Philip had the ability to smell the odor of sin on people.