It's More Effective to Attract Than to Simply Chastise

My children recently watched a film with me on St. Philip Neri and they were practically spellbound. “He’s really funny,” one of them commented. “I like that guy,” said another. In a way that books about or even the sayings of Philip Neri can’t quite get, the film made an attempt at presenting the personality of the saint. Of course, watching him on screen is not at all the same as being in his presence, and I for one have come to wonder at what it would have been like to be near to him on the streets of Rome in the mid 16th century.

From all accounts, Philip Neri’s personality was unrepeatable. There is something of the man himself that just seems to evade comprehension. Even a film as wonderful as the one we watched—Preferisco Il Paradiso (I Prefer Heaven)—relies on the history of Neri’s effects that only points to but does not fully deliver the personality of that singular man.

That personality made crowds flock to him, young people entrust themselves to him, grown men follow his counsel without hesitation, popes and cardinals confess their sins to him with regularity, and downtrodden sinners open their hearts to change their lives in response to his witness. He was the “saint of joy”[1] as Pope John Paul II called him and that joy was persuasive in a most remarkable way. Trying to grasp the power and the beauty of that personality without being able to personally stand in his presence feels to me like trying to grasp the wonder of a symphony or the majesty of a sunrise by relying on someone else to tell me about them. I wish we could all enjoy being in Philip Neri’s presence, basking in the glow of that personality that was, by all accounts, one of a kind, unique in the most spectacular respects.

And yet, we must confess something absolutely fundamental about this man of joy: his joy was not his alone. It was joy that came to him as a gift, the joy of the Lord he loved, the joy that passed through him to those who did spend their days in his company, the joy that the same Lord promises to us through this singular saint. The Church holds his memory so that his joy may be in us and our joy may grow towards completion (John 15:11).

But where did Philip Neri find this source of joy?

In secret, in solitude, hidden from the view of the world. There was a hiddenness to Philip Neri that animated his eventually very public life. He was fully one person and yet that unity that gave rise to that splendid personality ran very, very deep. The joy he gave to others came from somewhere, like all the rest of us he was not a self-generating phenomenon but rather much more like a willing instrument who gave to the people in his time and place the kind of music that uplifts and heals and nourishes all at once. The good news for us is that that joyful song of Philip Neri is also ours, through the memory and the communion of the Church, so that even though we do not see him and touch him in just the same way that all the many people of Rome did throughout years he walked their streets, we can still know him and love him and receive the joy that he found through the gift of the Church.

With the confidence that his joy is available to us in and through the Church, I want to reflect on the secret of his joy—his hidden life—before turning to his public life where we find the wondrous effects of what was received deep within the solitude of the saint.

Part One: “My secret is my own”: The Hidden Life of Philip Neri

A Son of Florence

Philip Neri was born in 1515 in Florence and died in 1595 in Rome. Like all Florentine Catholics, his Christian life began in the San Giovanni baptistery. As a young man, he was groomed in the city that was the crown jewel of the Italian Renaissance, with its diverse humanist pursuits and its retrieval of ancient cultures. He developed the ironic wit characteristic of Florentines, who passed their days engaged in commerce and leisure in public squares.

Florence was also a place with periodic political upheavals, where the powerful Medici family exerted nearly unchecked power over the city’s life, then were exiled, then returned with a fury. Florence was a bustling place, where art and music, literature and philosophy stretched to new heights and intoxicated the imagination. But, in the words of John Henry Newman, the great danger in Florence at this time was that “what was beautiful was placed before what was true; or rather, the beauty of the creature was preferred to the transcendent beauty of the Creator.”[2] Florence, as the hub of this humanist revival, became a place of frenzy, where the passions for the aesthetic and liberal arts, alongside the customs of ancient, pagan cultures, became the lust of unchecked libertinism.

In the midst of the city, though, there was a sanctuary where the full flourishing of human learning was coordinated to its true end in the praise of God. That place was the Dominican convent of San Marco. This is where Philip Neri’s hidden life began. Within the walls of the convent that he visited with regularity, he gazed upon the simple yet sublime paintings of Fra Angelico that adorn the brothers’ cells. He was tutored in that great art of the Dominicans “to form all matter of human knowledge into one harmonious system, to secure the alliance between religion and philosophy, and to train men to use of the gifts of nature in the sunlight of divine grace and revealed truth.”[3] Among those quiet cells of San Marco with Fra Angelico’s divine images all around, right in the heart of Florence but hidden from view, Philip received his initial formation in bringing the flourishing of human creativity into harmony with the work of God.

All the while, 1,000 miles to the north Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was well under way, while 300 miles to the south the seat of the Church at the Vatican in Rome was in desperate need of reform amid widespread simony, moral lassitude, and impoverished leadership. San Marco had already produced one would-be reformer in the firebrand preacher and political savant Girolamo Savonarola who attempted to purge Florence and through Florence the Church of its licentious excesses, burning books and art aplenty in the process. But his unrelenting and unfeeling revolution, founded not only on piety but also on his own sense of certainty for the righteousness of his cause and the superiority of his ways, led him into a spectacular failure.

With the Church still in need of true reformers, San Marco was now readying a gentler, humbler, but no less courageous reformer whose passionate zeal would be channeled through sympathy, tenderness, and humor. By the time Philip Neri left Florence and San Marco at the age of 17, he was on his way to learning what it meant to love the world and to love his fellow men, while ordering all that love to the love of God.

The Retreat at San Germano

Philip’s father sent his son to the boy’s uncle, who was a wealthy but childless merchant living in San Germano, south of Rome but north of Naples. He left with very little and he traveled by foot, but there was great promise before him in his uncle’s home. Philip was beloved of his uncle, who intended to not only teach Philip his trade but also make him his sole heir. Philip would become a businessman and fall into quite a sum of money and influence in due time. Though an important intersection for trade in Philip’s time, San Germano is rather unremarkable in terms of geographic location today, except for one fact that was true then as now: the town lies at the foot of the mount on which Saint Benedict of Nursia founded his first monastery at Monte Cassino. We do not know much about how Philip spent his days in San Germano, but we do know that he went to different churches and isolated chapels, and that he made his way up to Monte Cassino where he learned from the Benedictine monks. The monks’ vow of stability—to remain connected and at home in one place—was impressed on Philip, as was a great love of liturgy. Above all though, the motto of the Benedictines found its ways into and resonated with the desires of Philip’s heart: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ”.[4]

From the monastery where solitude was shared together, Philip went out across the valley towards the sea to find his own place of solitude while living in San Germano. There was a place called Gaeta where a giant rock rises out of the waters and is split in two. There is a chapel there dedicated to the Blessed Trinity and there Philip would go often, to pray in silence.

The result of all of this—Philip’s time as a student of solitude at Monte Cassino, his immersion in solitude at Gaeta and in other chapels surrounding the town—was that he became convinced about the general path of his life. Like St. Francis three centuries before him but with far less drama, he renounced his inheritance and set off to put in to practice what he had come to desire: “to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” He did not know what that would mean but he did know where he would go: Rome.

The Stability of Unstable Rome

In the early 1530’s, Rome was only a few years removed from the horrific sacking of the city at the hands of “an out-of-control imperial army”; meanwhile across the Tiber on Vatican hill, Michelangelo was painting his Last Judgment. Rome was materially in ruins, and spiritually it was worse off still. By one account, “harlots walk[ed] about like matrons or [rode] on mules attended in broad daylight by noble members of the cardinals’ households and by clerics.” Out in the streets, the destitution following the destruction of the city was severe, the population was less than half of what it had been before, and “hatreds and animosities” among the people were running rampant. This is the city Philip came to in 1534 and never again left. This was the place of his stable residence.

Philip was not yet a priest but a layman, and he found a job as a tutor to two young boys in exchange for a small, austere room and basic food. He lived simply, ate sparingly, and tutored the boys faithfully, both of whom later became priests. He committed to this life and to this work, and yet he roamed about the city streets and into the countryside, finding places of solitude where he could pray in silence. It is said of him that he began to live an eremitical existence in Rome during these years, “eating coarse foods, sleeping in his clothes in the churches and other sacred places” and moving with such ease into prayer whenever he was alone. Like a desert father in an urban center, Philip embraced solitude and practiced opening his heart to listen to the voice of the Lord.[5]

During these years as a layman in Rome, Philip eventually moved even deeper into the city to seek solitude—and by deeper, I mean farther down. Philip began to visit and then spend entire nights in the catacombs of St. Sebastian just outside of and beneath the city. This was a place of great solitude but, for the Christian, also a place of communion. Surrounded by the bones of martyrs and other Christians, Philip would pray and contemplate, rest and sleep. Those early years of silent and focused study in the convent of San Marco, those middle years of Benedictine tutelage and solitary days around San Germano, and his periods of prayer in the quiet places of Rome for years by this point all led him to these catacombs where the deepest silence and the most sacred communion are paradoxically joined.

It was in the deep recesses of this stillest of all places that the greatest secret of Philip’s hidden life took place. He spoke of this event only passingly, with his most intimate companions, years later, and in full only with his closest confidant in the last years of his life. He had been in Rome 10 years, it was now 1544, and it was the eve of Pentecost. As his first biographer, Antonio Gallonio recounts:

It was habitual with Philip to pray each day to the Holy Spirit, and with great humility to ask Him for His gifts and graces . . . [On this particular night] he felt himself divinely filled with the power of the Spirit with such force that his heart began to palpitate within his body and to be inflamed with such love that, his nature being unaccustomed to such a palpitation of the heart, he indicated that he was completely unable to bear it.”[6]

Pietro Consolini, who alone received the full story, added that Philip “saw a ball of fire enter into his mouth and then felt his breast expand over his heart. The sensation of inner fire was so strong that Philip threw himself onto the ground and cried out, ‘Enough, Lord, enough! I cannot take any more!’”[7]

This is one of the things about Philip Neri—and there are many—that are difficult to imagine or understand. With all the supernatural occurrences surrounding his life, Philip never boasted of them but, quite to the contrary, sought to keep them hidden, in secret. Of all his secrets, this is the one he kept closest of all. We would have no knowledge of it if not for him eventually entrusting his closest confidant with the memory of this event where the Spirit came to him as a ball of fire, entered his mouth and set his heart ablaze. That confidant—Consolini—revered Philip’s secret so dearly that he did not even share it during the process of inquiry during the saint’s canonization, but only relayed the memory on his own death bed.

So here it is: in the dark of the catacombs in the middle of the night on the eve of Pentecost, the Spirit set Philip’s heart aflame. Many people say that they are “on fire with the love of Christ.” If Philip Neri ever said such a thing, he may have meant something quite different.

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with that. Perhaps the impulse of many, myself included, is to try to rationalize this in some way, to suggest or at least imply that if this is not fantasy or hysteria or embellishment or legend, then at least it is in some way metaphorical. Personally, I have no corresponding experience—nothing even close. I have nowhere to put this. I wonder, though, if what is really going on in my hesitancy or even incredulity to accept and accede to this event in Philip’s life is the demonstration of an unwillingness to step out of the certainty of my own experience, demanding by presumption that the saint conform to my expectations and the patterns already established in my own life.

We ought to recognize that the Spirit came upon Philip from outside of him—it came to him. So too this saint, like all saints in Christ, comes to us, not simply to confirm what we already thought possible but to further the inauguration of what is true, well beyond the boundaries of our settled certainties. The Spirit changed Philip, not unlike the saints might change us.

Here, in the most hidden part of Philip’s life, is the flame that heats the joy that radiated from within the saint, whose personality was, by all accounts, unrepeatable, utterly persuasive, beautiful. By the testimony of innumerable witnesses, Philip actually radiated heat from his chest, so much so that he found himself quite warm even in the dead of winter, loosening his collar to release the heat. He had a bulge in his chest that, when doctors opened him after his death, was found to be the protrusion of an enlarged heart that had turned his ribs outwards so that it had room to beat with all its force. Philip himself said of that night in the catacombs that his “nature was unaccustomed” to that intensity, that heat. I doubt I am the only one who would consider himself unaccustomed to what the hidden life of this saint keeps secret. It pierces my understanding and my experience.

For our benefit, though, and to gain some bearing or perspective, it might be worth noting that Philip is not the only saint who experienced such an occurrence. At the very least, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Padre Pio both had quite similar things happen to them, and since they both handed over the memory of their experience in their own words, perhaps it would be helpful to hear from one of them. I’ll choose Teresa, because her testimony is shorter:

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form—a type of vision which I am not in the habit of seeing, except very rarely . . . In his hand I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love of God.[8]

Like the Carmelite mystic Teresa alongside whom Philip was canonized in 1622, Philip plunged deep into the pools of contemplative prayer. He first learned that art of directing all things solemnly to God in the cells of San Marco, he deepened that practice in the shadow of the Benedictines around San Germano, and he carried the fruit of those ripening years down into the catacombs of St. Sebastian, to the relics of those on whose faith the Church itself is built. Out of those secret depths where the Spirit of communion came to him from without and enlightened him within, Philip emerged to begin moving towards the more definite form his life would take, a life that would lead him, in the end, to be hailed as the second Apostle of Rome.

As he went forth, he carried the secret of his joy in his heart, which had now become a cell, a cleft in a rock, an open chapel where the love of Christ could dwell. Philip would withdraw from the crowds and return to prayer in solitude whenever he could for the rest of his life, but always in order to follow that maxim of his first fathers in faith, the Dominicans, who contemplate and share with others the fruits of this contemplation.

Part Two: “The love of God makes us do great things”: The Public Life of Philip Neri

The Charity to Heal

Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, Philip Neri first practiced what he later instructed others to do: “To leave Christ for the sake of Christ—going from prayer to works of brotherly love.”[9] For Philip in his late 20’s and early 30’s living still as a layman, these works of brotherly love were often undertaken in hospitals, among the poor and the young and pilgrims alike. He devoted himself especially to the sick and dying at the hospital San Giacomo, where he joined with other laymen of a confraternity. “Serving the sick” at that time, especially among the poor, “meant doing something about cleanliness, sweeping the sickroom, washing dishes, bathing patients, feeding the most destitute, paying that kind of attention which everyone who is helpless needs.”[10]

One of the men he met while serving at the San Giacomo was Persiano Rosa, a secular priest. Rosa proved to play an important role in Philip’s life. Together, they founded a new association dedicated to charitable works in 1548 called the “Fraternity of the Most Holy Trinity for Pilgrims and Convalescents.” Two years later, 1550, was a Jubilee Year, which meant that thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from all over the continent and beyond would flood into Rome, many of whom were poor or, by the time they arrived, ill, exhausted, and in need of care. During that year alone Neri’s and Rosa’s fraternity, cared for up to 500 pilgrims per day, more than 50,000 for the year. In subsequent jubilees, they received many times this number.[11]

Rosa was important to Neri in another way, which is that he was Philip’s spiritual director and confessor. The two shared a close bond and it was Rosa who persuaded—maybe even “forced”—Neri to become a priest at the age of 36. Rosa discerned in his friend and regular penitent the gifts of healing that were not restricted to the physical but ran deeper, to those hidden places where spiritual wounds lie. It was likely Rosa who first glimpsed the kind of confessor Neri would become as a priest, how that sacramental duty would lead to the graced spiritual direction he would provide, and how his particular personality and spiritual gifts would serve the Church through the priesthood. What Rosa could not have imagined is just how right he was.

For Neri’s part, perhaps this is one of the truly rare things about him: he actually listened to a mentor’s advice despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear. He cherished his life as a layman, dedicating himself to prayer and the works of mercy, and he did not of himself seek out the ordained priesthood. But again, he himself first practiced what he would later preach to others, which is this: “When it is a question of changing from a bad way of life to a good one, a man needs no advice. But when a man wants to change from a good way of life to a better one, then much time, advice, and prayer are needed before he decides.”[12]

The foundation of Philip Neri’s priesthood were the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist and Penance. He would pray the Mass daily, which was not a typical practice at the time. His preferred Mass time was noon so that his mornings would be left open to hear confessions. It was especially in the secret of the confessional that the blazing fire of divine love that enflamed his heart deep in the catacombs slowly warmed the chilled spiritual life of the Roman church, one penitent at a time.

Rome, we’ll recall, was a city in need of rebuilding, both materially and spiritually. The Church itself, grown slack in its zeal for the Lord and bogged down by too many excesses, lifted up by too few true servants, made over into a kind of chess board for ambitious careerists and the political tactics of influential families, was in need of a renewal right in its heart, in the very See that guarantees its unity. The genius of Philip Neri as a reformer was revealed first in that sacred place hidden from the world’s eye: the confessional. He lived and served what he believed, that “there could be no real reform without interior renewal, and true interior renewal had to be based on and nourished by the sacraments.”[13]

In time the penitents that came to Philip Neri were so many, that he would begin receiving them even before the church opened in the morning. He would receive people in the evening. He would interrupt rest and all forms of activity to forgive sins on behalf of Christ and his Church. He treated penance not as a burden to himself and taught his penitents not to hesitate to seek the sacrament, even to come daily.

To Philip, it was a joy to find Christ, to be reunited with him, to begin again in the confessional to allow Christ to do good through you. Penance was an affirmation of the love of Christ; it was a joy, not a burden. It was a joy to heal, a joy to be freed for charity. The confessional is the place of a gentle reform, where whispers rather than whirlwinds, confidences rather than condemnations rebuild what has fallen into disrepair. John Henry Newman sings an ode to this central aspect of Neri’s ministry, as he writes:

We are told in his life that “he abandoned every other care, and gave himself to hearing confessions.” Not content with the day, he gave up a considerable portion of the night to it also. Before dawn he had generally confessed a good number. When he retired to his room, he still confessed everyone who came; though at prayer, though at meals, he broke off instantly, and attended to the call. When the church was opened at daybreak, he went down to the Confessional, and remained in it till noon, when he said Mass. When no penitents came, he remained near his Confessional; he never intermitted hearing confessions for any illness. “On the day of his death he began to hear confessions very early in the morning;” after Mass “again he went into the Confessional;” in the afternoon, and “during the rest of the day down to supper time,” he heard confessions. After supper, “he heard the confessions of those fathers who were to say the first Masses on the following morning,” when he himself was no longer to be on earth. It was this extraordinary persevering service in so trying, so wearing a duty, for 45 years, that enabled him to be the new Apostle of the Sacred City.[14]

From Healing to Building Up

As much as he dedicated himself to hearing confessions and forgiving sins, Philip Neri was not simply content to absolve his penitents and then let them go on their way. His care ran deeper. He wanted to nurture them in holiness, foster in them the strength to do good. As one of his early biographers puts it, “He was not content with having . . . won a number of penitents, but, desiring to preserve them, he took care, like a good father, to invent spiritual exercises, by which they should not only maintain, but keep continually increasing their fervor, and advancing in spiritual things.”[15] It was this desire—the desire to not only be a healer but also a tender and loving father—that eventually gave rise to the Oratory, for which Neri is known the world over.

Philip himself did not need the penitents in the confessional. He did not need the young men that would come to him in droves for spiritual guidance. He didn’t need to draw his sense of worth, his feeling of importance, or his knowledge of being loved from what he did for others. What he needed was the Lord whom he never stopped meeting in solitude, in the times when he was not needed by others, when he would enter with ease back into the depths of his contemplation, in prayer, to the source of the fire in his heart.

Because he did not need those who came to him, he was free to love them. He understood the young men who came to him in all kinds of conditions. Oftentimes, they were not even seeking penance, they were not interested in faith or virtue, but Philip’s humor, his understanding of their ambitions and desires, drew them to him and they listened. He would guide them into the sweet peace of penance, teaching them to discover its joy, and then he would set about guiding them into a more fruitful, meaningful, holy way of life—one filled with true joy, rather than fleeting pleasure or idleness.

Jerome Williams sums up nicely how this paternal care established something quite permanent for these young people and those who came after them, he writes:

The fruit of Philip’s gift of spiritual leadership was a growing band of young men who wanted to be near him as often as possible. They developed the habit of visiting him in the afternoon, and in order to keep them busy, he would organize outings. The group would visit the Seven [Pilgrim] Churches [of Rome], stopping along the way at some chosen spot to sing or enact a play and to take a meal. These outings that began with twenty or thirty companions eventually grew to hundreds and even, on special feast days, to thousands. It became one of Rome’s characteristic sights. “Ecco Filippone!” the onlookers would shout, as Philip would lead crowds to churches, praying and singing and laughing as they went their way. Later on a smaller group of close disciples would end the day with talk and prayer in Philip’s room. Philip’s gift of prayer seemed to spill over onto those in his company, as if his union with God opened a window upon Heaven . . . Out of these gatherings, the famous Oratory developed. The group of those closest to Philip would meet for a time of prayer, reading, and discussion. First it was a few, then more, and finally too many to fit into their small meeting space. It was not long before the Oratory became well known and even fashionable. Men of all ranks began to attend, priests and cardinals drew life from it.[16]

The great composers Animuccia and Palestrina went to confession with Philip regularly, and they too participated in the Oratory. With them, came the infusion of music into the gatherings, along with other artists and musicians. In this place young people—laypersons—came together to pray, to break open the Word, to engage in disciplined (rather than frivolous) but also free dialogue. Philip created the environment, he guided them, but he gave them space and let them be free. He “took great joy in all these individual characters and their different talents and gifts,” and he relished the role of discovering and encouraging the talents of others. At times, he hosted outdoor Oratories, and here with a wider possible audience Philip’s hope was “to bring joy to the people by means of the beauty of nature and the glorious melodies of great musicians, but to have it be the true joy of those who are at peace with God.”[17]

Philip exuded joy, he exercised fatherly affection, he drew others to himself and then directed them to Christ and to serving one another. He knew what Savonarola—who failed to reform Florence in the decades before Philip was born—never learned: that it is far more effective to attract than it is to simply chastise.

Our natures abhor a vacuum and, with the most practical wisdom, Philip filled in the cavity of sin he rooted out in the city, in the Church, and in the people, especially the young that he healed, with good practices that would nourish them. As a good father, though, he was not only comforting and sympathetic and encouraging, but also demanding. He spurred longing in his disciples and he did not allow them to settle for too little, or to become wrapped up in their own ambitions, or puff themselves up with their achievements. His gentle prodding of a young man, Francesco Zazzara, is a case in point:

“O happy you!” [Philip] said, “now you are studying; after a time you will be made a doctor and begin to gain money, and to advance your family; you will become an advocate, and then some day you may be raised to be a prelate,” and so he went on describing step by step all the honors which the world could give, or which had ever passed through the youth’s imagination, repeating again: “O happy you! Then you will be looking for nothing more.” Francesco thought that the Saint meant what he said; but at last Philip pressing the youth’s head to his bosom, whispered in his ear, “And then?”[18]

The “and then?” for Philip was always Heaven. Do you desire Heaven? Do you prefer it? Shall we start to grow accustomed to it here? Let’s begin. That was Philip Neri’s clarity, the desire of his heart.

The Cultural Revival

As a son of Florence, Philip cherished the arts, he loved the world, he did not shutter before the accomplishments and creativity of men. But the beauty of the creature was always subordinate to the transcendent beauty of the Creator. Philip knew that ambition blinds us, that achievements become addictive as soon as we silently praise ourselves for them, and that souls are lost more easily in the slow and steady steps of worldly ascent than in sudden moments of great rebellion. For this reason, he would keep his disciples close to the works of charity, leading them constantly back to the hospitals, back to the poor, back to the lowly tasks of a Christian disciple.

For one of his young men who was a promising and self-congratulating theologian, he charged him with daily cooking for the community. For another who was a gifted preacher, he ordered him to deliver the same sermon six times in a row so that other people would think the young man could do nothing else. For Baronius, perhaps his most talented disciple who wrote an entire history of the Church, he once sent him to purchase wine and instructed him to taste of every bottle in the shop, then to ask to buy only half a liter and present a very large coin to the wine vendor, asking him to make change. Though sometimes bizarre, none of it was cruel. His sense for irony was a matter of seeing things in their right perspective, and these sorts of jokes he played on others were to keep them from allowing something spiritually unhealthy to grow inside them. When he himself became the object of praise or adulation, he routinely placed himself in the center of the joke, once showing up at a fancy party with half his beard shaved off. He took himself lightly and he took heaven seriously.

In forgiving sins, in guiding the young, in spreading joy, in depending on the sacraments, in beckoning others upwards towards Heaven, Philip Neri was renewing the Church when the Church needed it most. That renewal began in the interior, in the cleansing and opening of hearts but it grew to revive a lagging culture.

Newman, who three centuries later opened the first of Philip’s Oratories in the English speaking world, recognized the cultural genius of his patron to be in his “preference, as he expressed it . . . to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.”[19] The love of art, of ancient things, of learning and expression that burned in but then consumed Florence was reformed through Philip’s faithful, joyful spirit and directed back to God, as the Dominicans had long ago taught him to do.

I still rather wish that we could spend time in Philip’s company, feeling the radiance of his personality, basking in the glow of his liveliness. But perhaps there is an even greater part for us, which is to allow ourselves to open up the silence of our hearts, to release it of ambition and fill it with humility, to contribute to creating places of formation and education where every bit of learning is directed back to the source of all beauty, and to hear Philip saying to us, today, what he said to so many in his own day, “Well friends! When shall we have a mind to begin to good?”[20]

Editor's Note: This piece is an extended version of Professor DeLorenzo's Saturdays with the Saints lecture on 9 September 2018 entitled, "St. Philip Neri: God’s Humorist."

Featured Image: Carlo Maratta, The Virgin Appearing to St Philip Neri, c. 1675; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

[1] Pope John Paul II, “Letter for the Fourth Centenary of the Death of St Philip Neri,” October 7, 1994,

[2] John Henry Newman, “The Mission of St. Philip Neri, Part 1,” Newman Reader - Sermons Preached on Various Occasions - Sermon 12.1, accessed September 7, 2017,

[3] John Henry Newman, “The Mission of St. Philip Neri, Part 2,” Newman Reader - Sermons Preached on Various Occasions - Sermon 12.2, accessed September 7, 2017,

[4] Paul Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, trans. Daniel Utrecht (New York: Continuum, 1995), 9.

[5] Türks, 12–13.

[6] Türks, 16–17; see also Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri, trans. Jerome Bertram (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 17.

[7] Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, 17.

[8] Teresa of Avila, Complete Works, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946), vols. 1, 192; see also Jonathan Robinson, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri (Kettering, Ohio: Angelico, 2015), 219; cf. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Letters, ed. Melchiore of Pobladura, Alessandro of Ripabottoni, and Gerardo di Flumeri, vol. 1 (Foggia: Edizione “Voce di Padre Pio,” 1980), 1186; Robinson, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri, 188.

[9] See Philip Neri, The Maxims and Sayings of St. Philip Neri (Potosi, Wisconsin: St. Anthanasius, n.d.), 14.

[10] Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, 23.

[11] Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri, 19–21.

[12] See Neri, The Maxims and Sayings of St. Philip Neri, 49.

[13] Robinson, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri, 249.

[14] Newman, “The Mission of St. Philip Neri, Part 2.”

[15] Pietro Giacomo Bacci, The Life of St. Philip Neri: Books I and II, ed. William Bloomfield (Bloomfield Books), 43; see also Robinson, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri, 255.

[16] Jerome K. Williams, “St. Philip Neri,” in True Reformers (Greenwood Village, Colorado: Augustine Institute, 2017), 115–16.

[17] Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, 46–47.

[18] Bacci, The Life of St. Philip Neri: Books I and II, 270–71; Robinson, In No Strange Land: The Embodied Mysticism of Saint Philip Neri, 120.

[19] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Martin Svaglic (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 179.

[20] See Neri, The Maxims and Sayings of St. Philip Neri, 5.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. His book on death, desire, and the communion of saints is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints.

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