Feast Day: May 26
Born: July 22, 1515 in Florence, Italy
Died: May 26, 1595 in Rome, Italy
Beatified: 1615, Canonized: 1621
Patronage: The City of Rome, Joy, Laughter, Humour
At a certain moment in my childhood it became important for me to know the saint on whose feast day I was blessed to share my birthday! My mother had provided us with numerous novels on the lives of the saints and I very much hoped that it would be someone like St. Michael, St. Joan of Arc, St. Francis Xavier, or St. Sebastian. After doing some investigation, I discovered that my birthday saint was St. Philip Neri. I will admit I was disappointed to learn this, as I had no idea who this man was other than that he was a priest and not some famous warrior like St. George or a glorious martyr like St. Peter. However I realized that it was not within my power to assign a different saint to my birthday, so I was stuck with St. Philip Neri, whoever he was…
It was not until I began my studies at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto that I began to appreciate just how blessed I was to have St. Philip as my birthday patron. A number of my classmates had spent their philosophical studies at St. Philip Neri Seminary in Toronto under the care of the Oratorian Fathers. As I got to know them better, I began to understand just how remarkable of a priest St. Philip was and how his priestly zeal had carried on into our own time in the thriving Oratorian communities of London, Birmingham and Toronto, to name a few.
But who was this Italian priest whose life of holiness and untiring service continues to live on in the Church today? Born on July 22, 1515 in Florence, Filippo Romolo Neri showed signs from an early age of a deep love for Christ that would characterize his entire life as a disciple of the Lord. At the age of 16, he would frequently seek refuge in a little mountain chapel that belonged to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino built above the harbour of Gaeta in a cleft of rock which tradition says was among those rent at the hour of Our Lord’s death.[i] It was here that his vocation became known to him: that he was meant to travel to the Eternal City where in time he would be affectionately known as the Apostle of Rome.
He arrived in Rome in 1533, working as a tutor for a Roman family. For the next 17 years, he lived as a layman where he served tirelessly in his apostolate of
visiting hospitals, business and shopkeepers in Rome, encouraging them to serve God and grow in holiness. In 1544 he became good friends with St. Ignatius of Loyola and also began the custom of praying in the 7 Pilgrim Churches of Rome, in addition to practicing vigorous forms of mortification and prayer.
A few days before the celebration of Pentecost in 1544, St. Philip was praying in the catacombs of St. Sebastian and had a remarkable mystical experience that would shape the rest of his vocation:
“While he was with the greatest earnestness asking of the Holy Ghost His gifts, there appeared to him a globe of fire, which entered into his mouth and lodged in his breast; and thereupon he was suddenly surprised with such a fire of love, that, unable to bear it, he threw himself on the ground, and, like one trying to cool himself, bared his breast to temper in some measure the flame which he felt. When he had remained so for some time, and was a little recovered, he rose up full of unwonted joy, and immediately all his body began to shake with a violent tremour; and putting his hand to his bosom, he felt by the side of his heart, a swelling about as big as a man’s fist, but neither then nor afterwards was it attended with the slightest pain or wound.”[ii]
St. Philip’s experience in the catacombs not only revealed his sanctity, but also helped him realize that Christ was now calling him to become a priest to serve the city of Rome. After being ordained in 1551, St. Philip dedicated himself to promoting both frequent confession (he even revealed to a Roman nobleman a vision of hell to prompt him to repent for his sinful life) and frequent communion (which was not as common as in our present time) among his parishioners at the church of San Girolamo. He would spend his afternoons praying and offering spiritual formation with young men in a small oratory that was attached to San Girolamo’s.
As he continued his priestly ministry, he was also inspired by the example of St. Francis Xavier, and for some time desired to become a missionary in India. However, after meeting a Cistercian monk from Tre Fontane (the site of the beheading of St. Paul outside the walls of Rome), he was told by the monk that he had received a vision from St. John the Baptist that St. Philip was to continue his ministry. His missionary territory was not the far off lands of Asia, but the people of Rome themselves.
In time, the oratory that St. Philip created at San Girolamo Church became renowned throughout the Eternal City and attracted many followers. St. Philip also promoted pilgrimages to the 7 Pilgrim Churches of Rome. By 1577, St. Philip and his brother priests and some of his lay followers became the Congregation of the Oratory by decree of Pope Gregory XIII and were entrusted with the care of the church of Santa Maria Vallicella (which they rebuilt and is now affectionately known as Chiesa Nuova, the “New Church,” by Romans to this very day).
In 1590, Pope Gregory XIV, who once attended St. Philip’s spiritual exercises and devotions, attempted to make him a cardinal. But St. Philip adamantly refused to accept. It was also in this time that his health began to decline and on May 15, 1595 he predicted to his followers that in ten days he would pass away. May 25th of that year was the feast of Corpus Christi. Miraculously, St. Philip’s health was invigorated, allowing him to offer Mass and spend the day immersed in prayer with his brethren. An hour after midnight, on May 26, St. Philip suffered a massive hemorrhage and after receiving the final commendation from Cardinal Baronius, he breathed his last.
This is my birthday saint! And little did I know as a boy that one day I would have a remarkable encounter with the Apostle of Rome. In April 2013, I had the chance to travel to Rome. After spending a few days in the city, I hoped that I would be able to visit Chiesa Nuova, to pray at the altar where St. Philip rests, dressed in his priestly vestments, looking up at the Holy Sacrifice that takes place above him.
After winding through the maze-like streets of Rome, we arrived at Chiesa Nuova and I soon found myself praying in front of my birthday saint. Then it hit me. Why not ask the sacristan if I could offer Mass upon the altar of St. Philip Neri? Those who know me well know that I am quite shy and not an overly assertive person. But on this day I was determined and filled with zeal, thinking, “I am going to do whatever it takes to offer Mass upon the altar of my birthday patron!”
I found the sacristy and an elderly Italian man who I figured was the sacristan. I then proceeded to use a few Italian words with some Latin expressions (and lots of hand signals) to explain to him that I wanted to offer Mass.
Looking over his glasses at me with slight suspicion (perhaps wondering if I was too young to be a priest?) and after checking my credentials, he agreed and began to prepare for Mass.
Bewildered that this was actually going to happen, I told Fr. Jerome to get vested for Mass, not sure which altar he would take us to, but praying it would
be St. Philip’s.
After providing me with a set of vestments and a beautiful baroque chalice and paten (perhaps ones St. Philip himself used? I shall never know…), we proceeded out of the sacristy and I silently prayed, “O please, Lord, make him turn left to St. Philip’s altar!” It felt as if angels started to carry me the moment the sacristan turned left. I suddenly found myself standing before the body of St. Philip Neri, ready to offer the Holy Sacrifice – the greatest love of the Apostle of Rome!
As I offered Mass, I kept looking at St. Philip’s hands (I am not sure if they are incorrupt as they are wrapped in thin wire to protect them from being damaged). I thought again and again how many lives those hands had touched, how many Masses he had offered, confessions he had heard, anointings he had given, prayers he had raised up to heaven, and souls he had brought closer to Christ!
I was also struck by how much he loved Rome, our Mother Church, the eternal city of St. Peter and St. Paul and the foundation and home of Our Pope who we daily offer our loving obedience!
It was a Mass that I will never forget. I was admonished to not make this encounter with my birthday saint a nostalgic memory that I visit from time to time, but an affirmation to go forth and imitate St. Philip’s example of priestly service, sacrifice and fidelity to Jesus Christ and His Church!
I was affirmed that I am in communion with St. Philip Neri not only as my patron but also as my brother priest. He intercedes for me, inspires me, admonishes me and challenges me to love God’s people and to seek every day to become a true living icon of Jesus Christ, our eternal high priest, our Beloved Savior and friend.
Fr. Nathan Siray
All historical information for this article comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the life of St. Philip Neri
[i] Catholic Encyclopedia “St. Philip Neri” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12018b.htm