Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Philip Neri, Confessor

[Saint Philip Neri]Article

A.D. 1595

Perfect charity, which distinguishes all the saints, rendered this great servant of God a bright star in the church in these later ages. He was born at Florence in 1515, and was son of Francis Neri, a lawyer, and Lucretia Soldi, both descended of wealthy Tuscan families. From five years of age he was never known in the least tittle willfully to transgress the will of his parents. Once, indeed, a sister disturbing him on purpose whilst he was reciting the psalter with another sister, he gently pushed her away; for which action his father chided him; and this he bewailed with many tears as a great fault. He was very patient in sickness, and so mild that he seemed not to know what anger was. When he was only eleven years old he visited the churches very much, and prayed and heard the word of God with singular devotion. Such was his piety, his reverence, and respect to superiors, and his humility, sweetness and affability to all, that he was exceedingly beloved, and was commonly called good Philip. Having finished his grammar studies when he was eighteen years of age, he was sent by his father to an uncle, (who lived near Mount Cassino, and was very rich by traffic,) not to learn his business, but to be his heir. But Philip feeling in his soul ardent desires perfectly to follow Jesus Christ, and fearing the dangers of dissipation and of entangling his soul in the world, soon left his uncle, and went to Rome in 1533. There being taken into the house of Galleotto Caccia, a Florentine nobleman, in quality of preceptor to his children, he led so edifying a life, that the reputation of his sanctity was spread very wide, and reached Florence. Ordinarily he ate only once a day, and he could hardly be brought to add to bread and water, a few olives and a small quantity of herbs. He spent much time retired in a little chamber, passing sometimes whole nights in prayer; in which exercise he was favoured with abundant spiritual delights. His pupils made an admirable progress, under his care, both in virtue and learning; and in the mean time he studied philosophy and divinity in such a manner as to distinguish himself in the schools. Everybody sought his acquaintance, but in this particular he was very cautious and reserved for fear of falling into bad company, or at least of losing any part of his precious time. It is the observation of a modern philosopher, that one quarter of an hour a day given to superfluous and unprofitable conversation, amounts to a very considerable part of the longest life, in which the necessities of age and nature make always large abatements, and reduce action to a short span, in which we are to lay in provisions for eternity. This reflection made the saint extremely solicitous to husband well all his moments. Philip gave to his neighbour only that time which duty, mutual edification, and charity required.

He was moreover sensible that even saints complain that they return from company less fit for prayer, and seldom without some wounds in their soul; and that the idle conversation of the world always blows upon our hearts that contagious air of vanity, pride, and love of pleasure which it breathes; and which is always so much the more dangerous, as its poison is the more secret. Notwithstanding his precautions, the devil found means to play upon him his wicked agents. Certain lewd young men made an assault upon his chastity by impudent discourse; but he spoke to them with so much piety and strength that he softened their hardened hearts into compunction, and converted them to God. Against temptations he armed himself by prayer, fasting, and humility; yet he sometimes felt assaults or buffets of the flesh till fifty years of age; but for the thirty last years of his life was as free from all rebellion of that domestic enemy as if he had been without a body, as he declared to Cardinal Baronius; pouring forth at the same time a torrent of tears for his sloth and ingratitude in making no return to God, as he said, for the grace by which he had always preserved his virginity spotless in mind and body. He practised a universal mortification of his senses, often even in the smallest things; saying, that frequent self-denial in little things is necessary for us, that we may conquer in greater conflicts. To such a degree did he carry his love of holy poverty, that when he came first to Rome he would accept of nothing from his fond father but two or three shirts; and he kept nothing in his little room but a poor bed, a few books, and a little linen, which hung upon a cord against the wall. To all kinds of pastime he was an utter stranger, contriving to find necessary relaxation and exercise in works of charity and devotion, as in going from one church to another, and visiting hospitals. Even during the course of his studies he gave a great deal of his time to prayer, and every day visited all, or at least some of the seven churches appointed to be visited by pilgrims, which were several miles asunder, and some of them without the city. 1 He often spent the whole night in prayer before the door of some private church, and especially over the relics of the martyrs in the cemetery of Calixtus; often, when overpowered by sleep, he took a little rest on the ground in a porch of one of the seven churches. Whilst he was yet a young student in philosophy, he never called to mind the sufferings of Christ, or reflected on the sins and ingratitude of men, or cast his eyes upon a crucifix without melting into tears. After he completed the course of his theology, he took some time for the study of the holy scriptures, and of the fathers, the two sources and eyes of that science. The canons and laws of the church, containing the precepts and admonitions of her pastors and councils, are a necessary and excellent rule for the direction of manners among Christians; and a skill in some parts of the canon law is very requisite in a pastor of souls. Saint Philip therefore made the study of the canon law a part of his care; and became in a short time an oracle in all sacred studies, to whom many learned professors resorted for advice in their difficulties. The saint always recommended and promoted exceedingly these studies among his disciples; and to encourage them, he afterwards commanded his pious and learned scholar Cæsar Baronius, 2 who had entered the oratory of Saint Philip at eighteen years of age, to compile his annals of the Church; in the beginning of which work he was to him a great assistance, and a daily spur, as Baronius acknowledges, 3 who calls him the first author and original contriver of his annals.

Saint Philip was one of the best scholars of the age; but being desirous to approach nearer and nearer to Jesus Christ, whose sweet attractions he continually felt in his soul, at twenty-three years of age he sold even his books for the relief of the poor. Often in prayer he was so overwhelmed with spiritual joy and sweetness as not to be able to stand. Sometimes he was heard as he lay prostrate on the ground to cry out: “Enough, O Lord, enough; withhold a little at present, I beseech you, the torrent of your sweetness.” And another time: “Depart from me, O Lord; depart from me. I am yet a mortal man, and am not able to bear such an abundance of celestial joy. Behold I die my dear Lord, unless you succour me.” He used often to say: “O God, seeing you are so infinitely amiable, why have you given us but one heart to love you, and this so little and so narrow?” It is believed that if God had not, on such occasions, abated or withdrawn his consolations, he must have died through excess of joy, as he himself averred. Humility made him most industrious to conceal his knowledge or science, and much more the extraordinary gifts of grace; for he in all things sought his own contempt. Had not his heart been perfectly empty of itself, the divine love could never have found room in it to overflow in such abundance. So impetuous and so sensible was this love in his breast that it frequently discovered itself in a wonderful manner in his countenance and in the violent palpitations of his heart; for, as Saint Francis of Sales shows in his book of the love of God, and as experience convinces, violent affections of the mind produce strange effects on the body. 4 Galloni testifies that the divine love so much dilated the breast of our saint in an extraordinary rapture, that the gristle which joined the fourth and fifth ribs on the left side was broken; which accident allowed the heart and the larger vessels more play; in which condition he lived fifty years. In the midst of a great city, he led for some years almost the life of a hermit. For a long time he ate only bread with a few olives, herbs, or an apple, drank only water, and lay on the bare floor. His earnest desire of loving God more perfectly, by being united to him in glory, made him languish continually after that blessed hour when his soul should be freed from the prison of his body, and taking her flight to its origin and centre, should drown itself in the ocean of all good. He was wont to say, that to one who truly loveth God nothing can happen more grievous than delays of his enjoyment, and than life itself. But then the will of God, and the love of penance and suffering made this delay itself a subject of comfort, in which he also rejoiced with Saint Paul, inasmuch as by living on earth he was able still to labour in bringing souls to God.

His insatiable zeal for the salvation of others drew him often to the Exchange and other public places in the city, to seek opportunities of gaining some soul to God, or at least of preventing some sin; in which he did wonders, and whilst yet a layman quite changed the face of several public places. He often visited the hospitals, there to comfort, exhort, and serve the sick. He lamented to see the custom of waiting on poor sick persons disused in the world; a practice extremely conducive to inspire sentiments of humility and charity. He, therefore, desired very much to revive it, and with that view commenced the confraternity of the Blessed Trinity in Rome, with the assistance of his confessarius, who was a very holy priest named Persiano Rosa. He laid the first foundation of this pious establishment with fourteen companions, in 1548, in the church of our Saviour Del-Campo. He settled the most admirable economy and good order for receiving, serving, and instructing the sick and pilgrims. In this place Saint Philip made pious discourses, and held conferences several times every day, and often till late at night, by which he reclaimed great numbers from vice, and conducted many to an eminent perfection. In the year of the jubilee, 1550, he translated this confraternity to the church of the Holy Trinity, and erected a new hospital under the name of the Blessed Trinity, which to this day subsists in the most flourishing condition, and is one of the best regulated hospitals in the world. Several cardinals and princes come thither out of devotion in the evenings, to wash the feet, and to serve with their own hands the pilgrims, and especially the sick. Sometimes six hundred waiters on an evening are assembled together to perform this act of humility. The ladies wait on the female patients in another hospital. Saint Philip, not content with the care of hospitals, laid himself out in relieving the distressed in all parts of the city. It happened that as he was carrying an alms in a stormy night for secrecy, he fell into a deep ditch; but was preserved by God from receiving any hurt.

Humility made the saint sometimes think of devoting himself to the service of God in a laical state. But being desirous to employ his labours in the best manner he could in the care of souls, he deliberated with himself what state to choose for this end. On this occasion he was not only persuaded, but most urgently pressed and compelled by his confessor Rosa, to enter into holy orders. After a long preparation, he was ordained priest in June 1551, being thirty-six years old almost complete. From which time he chose his dwelling in a small community, at the church of Saint Jerom, where Rosa and certain other very virtuous priests lived. Every one ate by himself, and fasted according to his strength and devotion. Here Philip mitigated the austerities of his former life, and allowed himself a slender breakfast in the morning; and for his supper a couple of eggs, or a mess of broth, or a few herbs or beans; he seldom ate any flesh, and rarely fish. But when he ate abroad, which was very seldom, he took what was set before him, to avoid singularity; but never touched more than one thing; and seemed to eat without any relish for his food. He lived in a little unfurnished room, attending only to his devotions and to the winning of souls to God. In saying his first mass he was so overpowered with spiritual consolations, that on account of the shaking of his hands and whole body, he was scarcely able to pour the wine and water into the chalice; and this continued during the rest of the sacrifice, especially at the elevation and communion, and he was often obliged to lean on the altar, being otherwise in danger of falling down. He said mass every day, unless hindered by some grievous sickness; and then he always received the holy communion. He often fell into raptures at the altar, particularly after communicating, also after mass. On this account, he was sometimes two hours in saying mass; for which reason, towards the end of his life, he performed that function privately in a domestic chapel. The delight he found in receiving the holy sacrament is inexpressible. The very remembrance of that divine banquet, when he took an empty chalice into his hand, made him melt in tender sentiments of love. Galloni mentions several extraordinary raptures with which the saint was favoured in prayer, and testifies that his body was sometimes seen raised from the ground during his devotions some yards high, 6 at which time his countenance appeared shining with a bright light.

Saint Philip was not less eminent in zeal for the divine honour and in charity for men, than in the gifts of contemplation. Soon after he had received the priesthood, he was ordered by his superiors and confessarius to hear confessions, for which function he was by a long preparation excellently qualified. And so great was his desire of gaining souls to God, that he was never weary of this employment; though beginning early in the morning, he often spent in it almost the whole day. Even after mass, when called to this duty, he contented himself with a short thanksgiving, and went immediately to attend this office of charity, preferring the comfort of others to his own most favourite time of devotion. Nor is it credible how many souls he drew out of the mire of sin, and moved to embrace a life of singular perfection. Charity taught him innumerable devices to win the most hardened. The sight of a Jew, who happened one day to speak to him, pierced him with so deep a sentiment of compassion for his soul that for three whole weeks he never ceased weeping and praying for him till he saw him baptized. By displaying the terrors of death and the divine judgments, he softened the most obdurate sinners if they once listened to him. Those who shunned him for fear of the remedy of their spiritual diseases, he often gained by addressing himself to God in their behalf in fervent prayers. One he converted by desiring him to say seven times every day the Salve Regina, kissing the ground in the end, and adding these words: To-morrow I may be among the dead. Those who were engaged in criminal habits, he cured by enjoining them every evening, with some prayer, a short reflection on death, or a short representation to themselves of a soul in hell, and an imaginary entertainment or dialogue with her on her state, on eternity, the emptiness and extravagance of sin, and the like; or such a representation of a person dying, or of a carcass laid in the grave. He had an excellent talent for exciting penitents to compunction, and in inspiring them with a sovereign abhorrence of all sin; also with assisting them to discover the occasions and sources of sin, and to cut them off. In this consists very much the fruit of repentance; the occasions and approaches of the evil must be retrenched; the cancer must be entirely extirpated with every string of its root; the least fibre left behind will push forth again, and with more vigour than before. Here the penitent must not spare himself, whatever it costs him; though he part with an eye or a foot. It is by the neglect of this precaution that so many conversions are false and counterfeit; and that relapses are so frequent. Our skilful director was careful to lay the axe to the root; and not content to draw souls out of Sodom, he obliged them to quit the neighbourhood, and fly to the mountains, to the greatest distance from the danger. With this precaution, the other remedies which he applied all produced their desired effect. The saint, by the lights which the purity of his affections and his spirit of prayer were the means of obtaining, and by his learning and singular experience in the paths of virtue, conducted fervent souls in the maxims of heroic perfection. He sometimes miraculously penetrated the secrets of the hearts of others; and in particular knew hidden sins of impurity by the stench which such sinners exhaled, as several testified after his death. To one he said, that “he perceived such a horrid stench to come from the person infected with this filthy vice, that he never found anything so noisome.” To some who had criminally concealed such sins in confession, he said: “To me you cast forth an ill savour; you are fallen into such a sin of impurity; cast out the poison by confession.” His thirst for the salvation of souls made him earnestly desire to go to the Indies; but he was dissuaded by those whom he consulted, who told him that Rome was his Indies; a large field for all his zeal and labour, which would furnish him with an ample harvest.

The saint received all who resorted to him in his chamber, and was wont to instruct them by daily conferences, with incredible unction and fruit. Evil eyes could not bear so great a light; and certain envious and malicious persons derided his devotion at mass, and his other actions, and by the most contumelious discourses, and outrageous slanders insulted his person, and blackened his reputation; all which he bore with meekness and silence, never once opening his mouth in his own defence, or complaining of any one, but rejoicing to see himself meet with scorn and contempt. Often when he was reviled he exulted with joy. One of these slanderers was so moved by seeing the cheerfulness of the saint’s countenance, and his invincible patience, whilst another cursed and reproached him in the most bitter terms, that he was converted upon the spot, undertook the defence of the servant of God, and entered upon a penitential and edifying course of life. The author of all these injuries and affronts, moved also at the saint’s patience and mildness, of his own accord came to him, and upon his knees begged his pardon, which Saint Philip willingly granted him; and most kindly embracing him, received him into the number of his children. The man of God said, that if we ask of God patience and humility, we ought to rejoice and thank him when he sendeth us occasions of exercising those virtues, which are not to be obtained but by crosses and frequent acts of them. Another time, when he had opened his oratory, certain persons accused him of pride and ambition, and that he loved and affected to be followed by the people. Upon which complaints the vicar of Rome gave him a sharp reprimand, forbade him to hear confessions for fifteen days, and to preach without a new license: he moreover threatened him with imprisonment, if he did not leave his new ways of proceeding. The saint modestly answered, that he was most ready to obey his superiors in whatever they should command him. He excused the authors of his troubles in the best manner he was able, and with cheerfulness said to his friends, that God had permitted him to be so treated that he might become humble. By his patience and modesty this storm blew over, and after an inquiry into his conduct, leave was given him to live after his wonted manner, and to draw sinners to God by such means as his prudence should suggest. After which, his chamber began to be frequented by many of the prime nobility, to the singular profit of their souls. His charity for all seemed to have no bounds; but when he did but look on notorious wicked men, he could hardly contain the abundance of tears which compassion moved him to shed.

Desiring by all means in his power to help his neighbour, he by his conferences laid the foundation of the Congregation of Oratorians in 1551. Several priests and young ecclesiastics associating themselves with him, began to assist him in his conferences, and in reading prayers and meditations to the people in the church of the Holy Trinity. They were called Oratorians, because at certain hours every morning and afternoon, by ringing a bell, they called the people to the church to prayers and meditations. In 1564, when the saint had formed his congregation into a regular community, he preferred several of his young ecclesiastics to holy orders; one of whom was the famous Cæsar Baronius, whom for his eminent sanctity Benedict XIV. by a decree dated on the 12th of January, 1745, honoured with the title of Venerable Servant of God. At the same time he formed his disciples into a community, using one common purse and table, and he gave them rules and statutes. He forbade any of them to bind themselves to this state by vow or oath, that all might live together joined only by the bands of fervour and holy charity; labouring with all their strength to establish the kingdom of Christ in themselves by the most perfect sanctification of their own souls, and to propagate the same in the souls of others, by preaching, instructing the ignorant, and teaching the Christian doctrine. The general he appointed to be triennial; but was himself, much against his will, chosen general for life, though he afterwards found means to obtain a release from that burden, by alleging his age and infirmities. This happened in 1595, when Baronius was chosen his successor, though that great man left nothing unattempted to remove the burden from his shoulders.

Saint Philip, who dated the foundation of his oratory in 1564, obtained of Pope Gregory XIII. the approbation of his congregation in 1575. Its constitutions were afterwards confirmed by Paul V. in 1612. The same Gregory XIII. bestowed on the saint the church of our Lady of Vallicella, which was newly built in a finished taste by exquisite architects, whence it is called the New Church. Saint Philip took possession of it in 1583; but his congregation still continues to serve also the hospital of pilgrims of the Holy Trinity. The saint lived to see many houses of his Oratory erected at Florence, Naples, San Severino, Anxur, Lucca, Firmo, Panormo, Fano, Padua, Vicenza, Ferrara, Thonon, etc. 9 He established among his followers the rule of obedience, and a total abnegation of their own will, saying: “This is the shortest and most assured way to attain to perfection.” He was so great a lover of poverty, that he earnestly desired always to live destitute of worldly goods, and in a suffering state of indigence. He strictly ordained that none of his congregation should have to do with the purse of their penitents, saying: “It is impossible to gain both their souls and their goods.” This holy man lived equally reverenced and beloved by the Popes Pius IV. and V., Gregory XIII. and XIV., and Clement VIII., and by other great men, particularly by Saint Charles Borromeo. Among other miracles, when he himself lay sick of a fever and his life seemed despaired of, he was suddenly restored to health by a vision of the Blessed Virgin, in which he fell into a wonderful rapture, and cried out, “O most holy Mother of God, what have I done that you should vouchsafe to come to me?” Coming to himself, he said unawares to four physicians that were present: “Did not you see the Blessed Mother of God, who by her visit hath driven away my distemper?” But immediately perceiving that he had discovered his vision, he besought them not to disclose it to any one. This was attested upon oath by Galloni and four physicians who were present. Under the sharpest pains in his sickness, no complaint, groan, or stir, ever was observed in him; only he was sometimes heard softly to repeat these words: Adauge dolorem, sed adauge patientiam, increase my pains, but increase withal my patience. On several occasions he exactly foretold things to come. Baronius and others testified that they had heard several predictions from his mouth which the events always confirmed.

Saint Philip was of a sickly constitution, and was usually visited every year by one or two sharp fevers, which sometimes held him a long time; yet he lived to a good old age. In 1595 he lay all the month of April sick of a very violent fever; and in the beginning of May was taken with a vomiting of blood, discharging a very large quantity. Cæsar Baronius gave him extreme unction; and when the hæmorrhage had ceased, Cardinal Frederick Borromeo brought him the viaticum. When the saint saw the cardinal entering his chamber with the holy sacrament, to the amazement of all who were present, he cried out with a loud voice and abundance of tears: “Behold my Love, my Love! He comes, the only delight of my soul. Give me my Love quickly.” He repeated with the cardinal in the most tender sentiments of devotion and love those words, Domine non sum dignus, adding, “I was never worthy to be fed with thy body; nor have I ever done any good at all.” After receiving the viaticum, he said: “I have received my physician into my lodging.” He had procured many masses to be said for him, and in two or three days seemed perfectly recovered, said mass every day, heard confessions as usual, and enjoyed a good state of health. He foretold to several persons, and frequently, his approaching death, and the very day of it, as they declared upon oath. 10 On the three last days of his life, he was overwhelmed with more than ordinary spiritual love, especially on the day that he died, on which he counted every hour, waiting for the end of the day, which he foresaw to be the moment in which his soul would ingulf itself into the ocean of immortal bliss. Being taken with another fit of vomiting blood whilst Baronius was reading the recommendation of the soul, he with great tranquillity expired just after midnight, between the 25th and 26th of May, 1595, being near fourscore and two years old. His body was opened, and the place where his ribs were burst, and the skin projected to the bigness of a man’s fist, was seen by many. His heart and bowels were buried among his brethren, but his body was enshrined, and found uncorrupted seven years after. One Austin Magistrius, who for many years had been troubled with loathsome running ulcers in his neck, which physicians had judged incurable, hearing of the death of the saint, went to the church where his body was exposed; and after praying long before his hearse, applied his blessed hands to his sore neck and found himself immediately cured, which miracle five eye-witnesses attested upon oath. Other like miracles, several testified by the oaths of the parties, are related by Galloni the disciple of the saint, and an assistant of Baronius in compiling his annals; also by Baccius and others. Seven years after the saint’s death, in 1602, Nerus de Nigris, a Florentine gentleman, built a sumptuous chapel beautified with costly ornaments in the Church of the Oratory, and the holy man’s body, which was found entire, was removed into it. Many miracles were wrought at his tomb, and by his intercession. 11 He was canonized by Gregory XV. in 1622.

Saint Philip, inflamed with the love of God and a desire of praising him worthily, after offering him all the affections of his soul, and the homages of all his creatures, seeing in their poverty and inability nothing equal to his infinite greatness, comforted himself in finding in the mass a means of glorifying him by a victim worthy of himself. This he offered to him with inexpressible joy, devotion, and humility, to praise and honour his holy name, to be a sacrifice of perfect thanksgiving for his infinite benefits, of expiation for sin, and of impetration to obtain all graces. Hence in this sacrifice he satiated the ardent desires of his zeal, and found such an excess of overflowing love and sweetness in the closest union of his soul with his divine Redeemer.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Philip Neri, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 12 May 2013. Web. 20 October 2014. <>