The Apostle of Rome
Born at Florence, Italy, 22 July 1515; died 27 May 1595. Philip’s family originally came from Castelfranco but had lived for many generations in Florence, where not a few of its members had practised the learned professions, and therefore took rank with the Tuscan nobility. Among these was Philip’s own father, Francesco Neri, who eked out an insufficient private fortune with what he earned as a notary. A circumstance which had no small influence on the life of the saint was Francesco’s friendship with the Dominicans; for it was from the friars of S. Marco, amid the memories of Savonarola, that Philip received many of his early religious impressions. Besides a younger brother, who died in early childhood, Philip had two younger sisters, Caterina and Elisabetta. It was with them that “the good Pippo”, as he soon began to be called, committed his only known fault. He gave a slight push to Caterina, because she kept interrupting him and Elisabetta, while they were reciting psalms together, a practice of which, as a boy, he was remarkably fond. One incident of his childhood is dear to his early biographers as the first visible intervention of Providence on his behalf, and perhaps dearer still to his modern disciples, because it reveals the human characteristics of a boy amid the supernatural graces of a saint. When about eight years old he was left alone in a courtyard to amuse himself; seeing a donkey laden with fruit, he jumped on its back; the beast bolted, and both tumbled into a deep cellar. His parents hastened to the spot and extricated the child, not dead, as they feared, but entirely uninjured.
From the first it was evident that Philip’s career would run on no conventional lines; when shown his family pedigree he tore it up, and the burning of his father’s house left him unconcerned. Having studied the humanities under the best scholars of a scholarly generation, at the age of sixteen he was sent to help his father’s cousin in business at San Germano, near Monte Cassino. He applied himself with diligence, and his kinsman soon determined to make him his heir. But he would often withdraw for prayer to a little mountain chapel belonging 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. It was here that his vocation became definite: he was called to be the Apostle of Rome. In 1533 he arrived in Rome without any money. He had not informed his father of the step he was taking, and he had deliberately cut himself off from his kinsman’s patronage. He was, however, at once befriended by Galeotto Caccia, a Florentine resident, who gave him a room in his house and an allowance of flour, in return for which he undertook the education of his two sons. For seventeen years Philip lived as a layman in Rome, probably without thinking of becoming a priest. It was perhaps while tutor to the boys, that he wrote most of the poetry which he composed both in Latin and in Italian. Before his death he burned all his writings, and only a few of his sonnets have come down to us. He spent some three years, beginning about 1535, in the study of philosophy at the Sapienza, and of theology in the school of the Augustinians. When he considered that he had learnt enough, he sold his books, and gave the price to the poor. Though he never again made study his regular occupation, whenever he was called upon to cast aside his habitual reticence, he would surprise the most learned with the depth and clearness of his theological knowledge.
He now devoted himself entirely to the sanctification of his own soul and the good of his neighbour. His active apostolate began with solitary and unobtrusive visits to the hospitals. Next he induced others to accompany him. Then he began to frequent the shops, warehouses, banks, and public places of Rome, melting the hearts of those whom he chanced to meet, and exhorting them to serve God. In 1544, or later, he became the friend of Saint Ignatius. Many of his disciples tried and found their vocations in the infant Society of Jesus; but the majority remained in the world, and formed the nucleus of what afterwards became the Brotherhood of the Little Oratory. Though he “appeared not fasting to men”, his private life was that of a hermit. His single daily meal was of bread and water, to which a few herbs were sometimes added, the furniture of his room consisted of a bed, to which he usually preferred the floor, a table, a few chairs, and a rope to hang his clothes on; and he disciplined himself frequently with small chains. Tried by fierce temptations, diabolical as well as human, he passed through them all unscathed, and the purity of his soul manifested itself in certain striking physical traits. He prayed at first mostly in the church of S. Eustachio, hard by Caccia’s house. Next he took to visiting the Seven Churches. But it was in the catacomb of San Sebastiano — confounded by early biographers with that of S. Callisto — that he kept the longest vigils and received the most abundant consolations. In this catacomb, a few days before Pentecost in 1544, the well-known miracle of his heart took place. Bacci describes it thus: “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.” The cause of this swelling was discovered by the doctors who examined his body after death. The saint’s heart had been dilated under the sudden impulse of love, and in order that it might have sufficient room to move, two ribs had been broken, and curved in the form of an arch. From the time of the miracle till his death, his heart would palpitate violently whenever he performed any spiritual action.
During his last years as a layman, Philip’s apostolate spread rapidly. In 1548, together with his confessor, Persiano Rosa, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity for looking after pilgrims and convalescents. Its members met for Communion, prayer, and other spiritual exercises in the church of S. Salvatore, and the saint himself introduced exposition of the Blessed Sacrament once a month (see FORTY HOURS’ DEVOTION). At these devotions Philip preached, though still a layman, and we learn that on one occasion alone he converted no less than thirty dissolute youths. In 1550 a doubt occurred to him as to whether he should not discontinue his active work and retire into absolute solitude. His perplexity was set at rest by a vision of Saint John the Baptist, and by another vision of two souls in glory, one of whom was eating a roll of bread, signifying God’s will that he should live in Rome for the good of souls as though he were in a desert, abstaining as far as possible from the use of meat.
In 1551, however, he received a true vocation from God. At the bidding of his confessor — nothing short of this would overcome his humility — he entered the priesthood, and went to live at S. Girolamo, where a staff of chaplains was supported by the Confraternity of Charity. Each priest had two rooms assigned to him, in which he lived, slept, and ate, under no rule save that of living in charity with his brethren. Among Philip’s new companions, besides Persiano Rosa, was Buonsignore Cacciaguerra, a remarkable penitent, who was at that time carrying on a vigorous propaganda in favour of frequent Communion. Philip, who as a layman had been quietly encouraging the frequent reception of the sacraments, expended the whole of his priestly energy in promoting the same cause; but unlike his precursor, he recommended the young especially to confess more often than they communicated. The church of San Girolamo was much frequented even before the coming of Philip, and his confessional there soon became the centre of a mighty apostolate. He stayed in church, hearing confessions or ready to hear them, from daybreak till nearly midday, and not content with this, he usually confessed some forty persons in his room before dawn. Thus he laboured untiringly throughout his long priesthood. As a physician of souls he received marvellous gifts from God. He would sometimes tell a penitent his most secret sins without his confessing them; and once he converted a young nobleman by showing him a vision of hell. Shortly before noon he would leave his confessional to say Mass. His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, like the miracle of his heart, is one of those manifestations of sanctity which are peculiarly his own. So great was the fervour of his charity, that, instead of recollecting himself before Mass, he had to use deliberate means of distraction in order to attend to the external rite. During the last five years of his life he had permission to celebrate privately in a little chapel close to his room. At the “Agnus Dei” the server went out, locked the doors, and hung up a notice: “Silence, the Father is saying Mass”. When he returned in two hours or more, the saint was so absorbed in God that he seemed to be at the point of death.
Philip devoted his afternoons to men and boys, inviting them to informal meetings in his room, taking them to visit churches, interesting himself in their amusements, hallowing with his sweet influence every department of their lives. At one time he had a longing desire to follow the example of Saint Francis Xavier, and go to India. With this end in view, he hastened the ordination of some of his companions. But in 1557 he sought the counsel of a Cistercian at Tre Fontane; and as on a former occasion he had been told to make Rome his desert, so now the monk communicated to him a revelation he had had from Saint John the Evangelist, that Rome was to be his India. Philip at once abandoned the idea of going abroad, and in the following year the informal meetings in his room developed into regular spiritual exercises in an oratory, which he built over the church. At these exercises laymen preached and the excellence of the discourses, the high quality of the music, and the charm of Philip’s personality attracted not only the humble and lowly, but men of the highest rank and distinction in Church and State. Of these, in 1590, Cardinal Nicolo Sfondrato, became Pope Gregory XIV, and the extreme reluctance of the saint alone prevented the pontiff from forcing him to accept the cardinalate. In 1559, Philip began to organize regular visits to the Seven Churches, in company with crowds of men, priests and religious, and laymen of every rank and condition. These visits were the occasion of a short but sharp persecution on the part of a certain malicious faction, who denounced him as “a setter-up of new sects”. The cardinal vicar himself summoned him, and without listening to his defence, rebuked him in the harshest terms. For a fortnight the saint was suspended from hearing confessions; but at the end of that time he made his defence, and cleared himself before the ecclesiastical authorities. In 1562, the Florentines in Rome begged him to accept the office of rector of their church, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, but he was reluctant to leave San Girolamo. At length the matter was brought before Pius IV, and a compromise was arrived at (1564). While remaining himself at San Girolamo, Philip became rector of S. Giovanni, and sent five priests, one of whom was Baronius, to represent him there. They lived in community under Philip as their superior, taking their meals together, and regularly attending the exercises at San Girolamo. In 1574, however, the exercises began to be held in an oratory at S. Giovanni. Meanwhile the community was increasing in size, and in 1575 it was formally recognised by Gregory XIII as the Congregation of the Oratory, and given the church of S. Maria in Vallicella. The fathers came to live there in 1577, in which year they opened the Chiesa Nuova, built on the site of the old San Maria, and transferred the exercises to a new oratory. Philip himself remained at S. Girolamo till 1583, and it was only in obedience to Gregory XIII that he then left his old home and came to live at the Vallicella.
The last years of his life were marked by alternate sickness and recovery. In 1593, he showed the true greatness of one who knows the limits of his own endurance, and resigned the office of superior which had been conferred on him for life. In 1594, when he was in an agony of pain, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, and cured him. At the end of March, 1595, he had a severe attack of fever, which lasted throughout April; but in answer to his special prayer God gave him strength to say Mass on 1 May in honour of Saints Philip and James. On the following 12 May he was seized with a violent haemorrhage, and Cardinal Baronius, who had succeeded him as superior, gave him Extreme Unction. After that he seemed to revive a little and his friend Cardinal Frederick Borromeo brought him the Viaticum, which he received with loud protestations of his own unworthiness. On the next day he was perfectly well, and till the actual day of his death went about his usual duties, even reciting the Divine Office, from which he was dispensed. But on 15 May he predicted that he had only ten more days to live. On 25 May, the feast of Corpus Christi, he went to say Mass in his little chapel, two hours earlier than usual. “At the beginning of his Mass”, writes Bacci, “he remained for some time looking fixedly at the hill of S. Onofrio, which was visible from the chapel, just as if he saw some great vision. On coming to the Gloria in Excelsis he began to sing, which was an unusual thing for him, and sang the whole of it with the greatest joy and devotion, and all the rest of the Mass he said with extraordinary exultation, and as if singing.” He was in perfect health for the rest of that day, and made his usual night prayer; but when in bed, he predicted the hour of the night at which he would die. About an hour after midnight Father Antonio Gallonio, who slept under him, heard him walking up and down, and went to his room. He found him lying on the bed, suffering from another haemorrhage. “Antonio, I am going”, he said; Gallonio thereupon fetched the medical men and the fathers of the congregation. Cardinal Baronius made the commendation of his soul, and asked him to give the fathers his final blessing. The saint raised his hand slightly, and looked up to heaven. Then inclining his head towards the fathers, he breathed his last. Philip was beatified by Paul V in 1615, and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622.
It is perhaps by the method of contrast that the distinctive characteristics of Saint Philip and his work are brought home to us most forcibly. We hail him as the patient reformer, who leaves outward things alone and works from within, depending rather on the hidden might of sacrament and prayer than on drastic policies of external improvement; the director of souls who attaches more value to mortification of the reason than to bodily austerities, protests that men may become saints in the world no less than in the cloister, dwells on the importance of serving God in a cheerful spirit, and gives a quaintly humorous turn to the maxims of ascetical theology; the silent watcher of the times, who takes no active part in ecclesiastical controversies and is yet a motive force in their development, now encouraging the use of ecclesiastical history as a bulwark against Protestantism, now insisting on the absolution of a monarch, whom other counsellors would fain exclude from the sacraments, now praying that God may avert a threatened condemnation and receiving a miraculous assurance that his prayer is heard; the founder of a Congregation, which relies more on personal influence than on disciplinary organization, and prefers the spontaneous practice of counsels of perfection to their enforcement by means of vows; above all, the saint of God, who is so irresistibly attractive, so eminently lovable in himself, as to win the title of the “Amabile santo”.
- Charles Sebastian Ritchie. “Saint Philip Romolo Neri”. . Saints.SQPN.com. 26 May 2013. Web. 30 July 2014. <>