Saint Philip Neri: Practicing Joy in Mercy

Saint Philip Neri was well-known for his humorous and unusual penances, including one involving a chicken.

by Br. Stephen J., MIC

His contemporary, Ignatius of Loyola, would remember his informal teaching style and the way he drew people to the Gospel with far more than words. The French king would be forever grateful for his influence with the Pope to overturn an anathema. His Holiness, Pope Clement VIII himself, would always remember the children’s choir that broke down in the middle of a Latin hymn and began to sing “I prefer Paradise!” in Italian instead. And people all over Rome would remember his shrewd wit, his contagious laugh, and the conversations in which he encouraged them to take the spiritual life seriously.

Nearly everyone in the Eternal City in the mid-1500s knew the one who would be called “the Second Apostle of Rome,” St. Philip Neri, whose feast day is May 26 (superceded this year by Trinity Sunday).

Deep conversion
Philip Neri was born in Florence on July 21, 1515. The son of a lawyer and a noblewoman, he was raised well, and studied under the Dominicans of San Marco. When he was 18, he went to live with his uncle and to assist in the family business that he might one day inherit.

That same year, however, Philip experienced a deep conversion to God and a call to evangelical poverty. Moving to Rome, he studied under the Augustinians for three years, and then began to work among the poor and the sick, including prostitutes. In 1538, he began his mission of re-evangelizing Rome, talking with people of all classes about holy things and leading them in works of mercy. In this, he followed the example of the first apostles: “Every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42).

In 1548, with his confessor, Fr. Persiano Rossa, Philip established the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents. The Confraternity served travelers to Rome and those people who were released from hospitals while they were still too weak for regular work.

The Oratorians
Philip was ordained a priest in 1551 and soon began the society of secular clergy now called the Oratorians. This group began meeting regularly in a hospital “oratory,” but later moved to a newly built church for the Florentines in Rome. Later, the Oratorians entered and rebuilt a church in the center of Rome, known ever since as the Chiesa Nuova.

The Oratorians’ meetings were fairly unstructured, but they usually included readings from Scripture, the stories of saints and martyrs, and a lecture or discussion of some theological topic. Sometimes the saints’ stories were put to music such as the lauda spirituale (the 1500s equivalent of praise and worship). The composer Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed oratorios and other sacred music for his evening gatherings.

Saint Philip was well-known for his wise guidance in confession and his humorous and unusual penances. One woman came to confess that she would gossip and spread rumors about other people. Philip asked her to pluck a chicken, spread its feathers around her neighborhood, and then come back. When she returned, he told her to try and gather up the feathers again. The message was both clear and original: Rumors spread like feathers in the wind, and are hard to take back once spoken.

Joyful heart
Saint Philip’s best-known trait, though, was his joy. Philip Neri was, above all things, a joyful person. He used to say, “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.” When one allows his soul to remain downcast or discouraged, then the virtues of faith and hope diminish. Practicing these virtues, however, gives a joy deeper than our emotions that sustains us in both good and bad times.

To one familiar with the Diary of St. Faustina, St. Philip’s words recall Jesus’ warning that “the greatest obstacles to holiness are discouragement and an exaggerated anxiety” (Diary, 1488). Thus, it is essential in times of temptation to make acts of faith, hope, and trust, such as St. Philip’s short prayer: “Preferisco paradiso — I prefer heaven!” This practice of joy characterized Philip’s whole ministry.

Saint Philip Neri’s works of mercy were mostly directed to citizens of Rome, especially the poor. However, he also persuaded Pope Clement VIII to revoke the anathema against Henry IV of France after that king renounced Calvinism. Although most cardinals supported retaining the anathema, Philip believed that withholding forgiveness would lead the French king to fall away from the Church. He therefore instructed the Pope’s confessor, Fr. Baronius, a fellow Oratorian, to withhold absolution until the Pope should lift the anathema.

Plea for mercy
This bold move echoed the words of Jesus following the Our Father: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15). Pope Clement recognized the justice of this plea for mercy, and received Henry IV back into full communion with the Church. When the French king learned the reason for the Pope’s decision years later, he was grateful for Philip Neri’s tactful but pointed intercession.

On this Feast of St. Philip Neri, I invite you to consider doing a special work of mercy for someone in need. Do it in person if you can, and practice joy in doing it. And if it’s something you already do regularly, like volunteering at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or school, consider inviting somebody else you know to join you for a day or for a short time. The works of mercy build community, not only with those whom we serve, but with those who serve with us. And a community of mercy is the most natural expression of our supernatural communion with Christ and the saints in Heaven. May the joy of these saints, particularly St. Philip Neri, brighten this day for you and all those around you!

Saint Philip Neri, pray for us!

Photo by Sydney Rae on Unsplash


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