March is the month Philip of Neri was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church (March 12 1622). Over the centuries saints sometimes become attributed with and a certain grim and austere manner, and an ascetic and even forbidding personality. What a merry time Philip would have had mocking that stereotype. Even the German freemason Goethe loved Philip of Neri, who has been nicknamed the Happy Saint.
Along with his sense of humor and likeability, Philip also had his share of legends and miracles. The most enduring legend was that his heart became so big physically that it pushed a couple of his ribs out of the way and almost burst through his skin, so great was his love for mankind. More on that later.
Even before his cardiac issues Philip was a happy camper. He was one of four children born to a Florentine couple in the 1500’s. Although his mother died very early on, Philip was invariably a happy and kind boy. He attracted other children to him, and charmed adults. He earned the nickname “Pepo Buono”, or good Philip.
When he came of age Philip was sent to nearby San Germano to learn to be a businessman. It was a likely enough plan back in the day, but here was a budding saint who did not have a head for business. Good Philip persevered with the trade chosen for him, with mixed results. Legend has it that one night Philip was laying in bed counting abacus beads in his head when the host of heaven descended upon his humble self. Evidently Pepo Buono was given his marching orders, for the next day he left San Germano and headed for Rome - penniless and on foot. When he finally arrived - hungry, thirsty, sore, and dusty - a fellow Florentine gave Philip a hard floored attic and his daily bread. In return Philip tutored the man’s children.
After two years as an attic recusant, Philip began studying, then abruptly stopped and began his public life ministering to the people of Rome. At the time, Rome had not yet recovered from the destruction of invading armies. Churches were destroyed, half ruined, or half repaired; the same could be said for the clergy. Hardship and apathy reigned. What could be done?
The most unlikely answer to that question was Pepo buono himself: a skinny, bearded vagabond who slept in churches and carried his food in the hood of his cloak. He liked to pray in the catacombs, and emerge to accost people in the streets, usually with a huge grin. His happy personality, sincere interest in everyone he talked to, and lively faith were obvious even to people who shunned him. Philip just kept talking, often walking up to people with the question: “Brothers, when shall we begin to do good?”
There were many answers to this question. Philip listened to them all, sympathized with their plights, encouraged their good impulses, and most of all, led by example. When people expressed a wish to do good, Philip took them straightway to hospitals to care for the sick, and to church to pray. After everyone left Philip dwelt in solitude, pondering tomorrow’s missions. It was during one such evening (legends say it was the eve of Pentecost) that Philip was again visited by heaven in the form of a descending globe of fire (much like the tongues of fire said to have descended upon the apostles in the Upper Room on Pentecost). The globe entered Philip through his mouth. He immediately felt an overwhelming dilation of his heart, and all the joys and ecstasies such a larger heart would certainly be able to hold. Philip fell, groaning "Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no more!"
After ecstasy he lay like a broken man. Gradually coming to himself he saw a protrusion in his chest in the shape of a heart. Philip had always been a gentle and loving soul. Now it seems that he had divine assistance to be even more gentle and loving. Divine assistance was also pushing him towards the priesthood. Philip was reluctant to become a priest. He felt the cassock might be a barrier between he and the poor people he wanted to serve. At the time the clergy were mistrusted by many of the simple folk, sometimes for good reasons.
It became evident to Philip, however, that heaven wanted another priest so, on May 23 1551, he became Father Philip of Neri. The priesthood did not change Philip’s nature, unless it was to make him even more likable and fair minded than before. Lines outside his confessional were long. No longer did Philip have to track people down on the street for conversation. Now they came to him. Hearing confession was a very natural situation for Father Philip, for he was always seeking to bond with people, to be their friends, to lead them to happier lives.
Outside the confessional Philip began informal talks that drew more and more people. He had a way of meeting people exactly where they were at in their lives - spiritually, financially, emotionally - and then giving them a gentle nudge in the right direction. Always his sense of humor was his guiding light, and not just in the confessional or informal study groups.
Out in the streets Philip’s personality shined the brightest:
“Come you dunce, you great fathead, you brute-beast!’ he would roar at someone whom he had caught in the act of sinning, at the same time pulling the man’s ear, his beard or his jacket. But all was done with such simplicity that no one except a fool would dream of showing resentment. His ‘continual hilarity of mind’ was infectious, and his humour, which he scarcely ever put aside, lay on the borderline of tenderness and irony… just at that point where Christian liberty finds vent in joy. At the same time however, this curious and in many ways alarming individual possessed a soul of spotless purity.”
Philip, in other words, was full of heart. So full was his heart that his Church wisely accommodated him. A large room was built over the nave of San Girolamo, and Father Philip was given a priest assistant to ring a small bell so Philip’s friends knew when to come upstairs to pray. Over time Father Philip’s friends called the assistants "Oratorians," and the space upstairs their “oratory.” Young priests found Philip irresistible too, and eventually the Oratorians became a religious order (in part so the Church could keep an eye on Philip and his unorthodox ways). It was all the same to Philip, although the idea that Pepo Bueno’s anarchical exertions would make him the head of a religious order must have evoked paroxysms of laughter from him.
In the words of one of his biographers,
"He was all things to all men.... When he was called upon to be merry, he was so; if there was a demand upon his sympathy, he was equally ready.... In consequence of his being so accessible and willing to receive all comers, many went to him every day, and some continued for the space of thirty, nay, forty years, to visit him very often both morning and evening, so that his room went by the agreeable nickname of the "Home of Christian mirth."
Philip used laughter to ingratiate himself with other people, and to preserve his humility. His protruding heart was as difficult to hide as his holiness. He felt things deeply, and sometimes joked around to conceal his deep love for people and equally deep care for their welfare. Men said Father Philip’s face would glow with a light not of this world. He also had a knack for predicting things that later came to pass.
As for his Order, Philip admitted clergy and laymen, princes and paupers. He forbade members from taking vows (very unorthodox), and each house of the growing Congregation was completely independent of the others. Asked what Rule governed the Oratory, Philip smiled and replied, very seriously, “Nothing but charity.” By the end of his life the Oratory still had no formal rule, but had developed into a community of secular priests who spent their days in prayer, preaching, and administering the Sacraments to all comers.
Meanwhile Philip, who in his private Masses was “so absorbed in God that he seemed to be at the point of death,” found his health failing. The “greater part of the Sacred College” visited the founder of the Oratory in his homely room. No doubt their prayers on his behalf were heard, but Philip’s profound recovery is said to be directly related to another visitor. One afternoon, during the worst part of his illness, Philip
“…suddenly raised himself in his bed in spite of his weakness, and was seen to stretch out his arms before him with extraordinary fervour, while he sobbed and cried: ‘O my Madonna! my beautiful Madonna!’, words and actions which convinced the astonished bystanders that Our Lady had appeared to him. After this celestial visitation he found himself completely cured.”
Once out of bed Philip continued to roam the streets of Rome looking for converts. His ardor was of such considerable voltage that at times he seemed on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Nevertheless he lived until 1595, when his soul soared to judgment while his body was in the act of blessing his Oratorians from his deathbed. Doctors who examined his corpse found the protrusion in his breast significant enough in size to have broken two ribs, which curved in an arch to accommodate the heart of Pepo Buono.
Philip was canonized a saint less than thirty years after his death. Although best known for his mirth, Philip also had many expressions he would use to admonish and aid people in their search for happiness. Here are some of them.
Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; wherefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.
When a man is freed from a temptation or any other distress, let him take great care to show fitting gratitude to God for the benefit he has received.
We must accept the adversities which God sends us without reasoning too much upon them, and we must take for granted that it is the best thing which could happen to us.
We must always remember that God does everything well, although we may not see the reason of what He does.
There is nothing more to the purpose for exciting a spirit of prayer, than the reading of spiritual books.
Let a man always think that he has God before his eyes.
There is nothing good in this world: Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas.
We must die at last.
He who does not go down into hell while he is alive, runs a great risk of going there after he is dead.
A man without prayer is an animal without the use of reason.
Notes and Sources
Mark Fellows, The Counter-Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, (unpublished manuscript).
Baccis’s description of the enlargement of Philip’s heart is from The (“Old”) Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XII, St. Philip Romolo Neri.
The account of Philip and the Madonna is from Louis Ponnelle and Louis Bordet, St. Philip Neri and the Roman Society of His Times, Translated by Ralph Francis Kerr of the London Oratory, Sheed & Ward, 1932, p. 550.
Centuries after his death, some now argue that Philip’s enlarged heart resulted from an aneurysm. His contemporaries were unanimous in attributing his physical abnormality to a supernatural cause. There are numerous testimonies to violent heart palpitations accompanied by an “intolerable heat” that would force Philip to keep his windows open, even in the winter. He had a habit of pressing his penitents to his breast when he absolved them, and one penitent, the Abbate Crescenzi, “felt Philip’s heart beating with so great force that it seemed to him to be on the point of leaping from his breast.” The doctors treated him with bleedings and hot irons, and it is little surprise that Philip dismissed them as “dullards”, a term he may have applied to the medical minds of our time as well...