Friday, May 26, 2023

St. Philip Neri: A Patron Saint of Traditionalism

St Philip Neri in Ecstasy, 1614 by Guido Reni

As a boy, Saint Philip Romolo Neri (1515-1595), whose feast we celebrate today, was so charming and kind that he was nicknamed Pippo Buono or “Good Little Philip.” Pippo Buono was full of high spirits: when he was eight years old, he saw a donkey laden with fruit standing unattended in a courtyard and jumped onto its back. The startled beast bolted and hurled both itself and its rider into a deep cellar.

Philip left his native Florence at the age of sixteen to learn the business of his father’s cousin, and even though the impressed kinsman wanted to make him his heir, Philip felt called to Rome two years later. He arrived in the Eternal City penniless and took a job as a tutor to the young sons of a fellow Florentine. After another two years he became a student himself, studying philosophy and theology (He had a special fondness for St. Thomas Aquinas). But when after three years Philip felt that his studies were complete, he sold his library and gave the proceeds to the poor. Even decades later, scholars marveled at his theological erudition.

Philip now devoted himself to a love of neighbor, living like a gregarious hermit in the midst of a bustling city. Surviving only on a little bread and some herbs, he visited the Seven Churches of Rome each night and kept vigil in the catacombs of San Sebastian. He began visiting the sick in hospitals and then frequented the piazzas, schools, shops, banks, and rough parts of town such as the warehouse district. His warm conversation melted hearts. In the warehouses he would ask, “Well! my brothers, when shall we begin to do good?” [1] Several workers became his disciples and later entered the priesthood.
A Heart On Fire
St. Philip’s greatest attribute was his burning love of God—literally. At the age of twenty-nine, he was praying to the Holy Spirit shortly before Whitsunday when a mystical ball of fire entered his mouth and lodged in his chest. His heart grew so aflame with divine fervor that he had to rip open his clothes and cool himself on the stone floor.
When he arose, there was a painless swelling as large as a man’s fist next to his heart. An autopsy after the saint’s death would disclose the source of the protrusion. Over his heart, which had expanded with the love of God, two of his ribs were dislodged and curved in the form of an arch. The physicians marveled that Philip’s enlarged pulmonary artery did not cause him extreme pain and officially concluded that the cause was miraculous.
From that moment on, Philip was prone to heart palpitations that would occur any time he was engaged in a spiritual activity. The palpitations were sometimes so violent that his chair or bed or even room would shake from them; disciples who rested their head on his heart said that they sometimes knocked them off his chest. Yet these mysterious heartbeats had a spiritual power as well. Disciples of Philip would later say that when they lay their head on his chest at the saint’s behest, all temptations to sins of the flesh would disappear.
Portrait by Giuseppe Nogari (1699-1766)
Father Philip
Philip Neri labored as a layman in Rome for seventeen years, eventually founding the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity to look after pilgrims and convalescents. The community frequently received the sacraments and met for their distinctive spiritual exercises (see below). It was Philip who helped begin the Forty Hours’ Devotion: every first Sunday of the month, the chaplains of the Confraternity exposed the Blessed Sacrament, during which time he would give a sermon. Some people came to heckle him, amused at the thought of a layman giving a spiritual discourse, but Philip won them over. Once, a sermon of his converted thirty dissolute youths.
In 1551, Philip obeyed the bidding of his confessor and was ordained a priest. As a layman, he had encouraged the frequent reception of Holy Communion (uncommon at the time), but he also taught that the young especially should go to confession more than they communicated. As a priest, he put this policy into practice, and soon his confessional was changing lives. Night and day, he heard confessions, leaving a key under the door of his room so anyone could enter, and he never complained about being interrupted to help someone, saying he was “leaving Christ for Christ.” Philip would typically hear as many as forty confessions before dawn in his room and then go to the church when it opened at sunrise to hear many more. Sometimes, he could read the hearts of penitents before they opened their mouths; once, he converted a young noble by giving him a glimpse of Hell.
Love of the Mass
The sacrament of confession was the cornerstone of Philip’s apostolate, but his first and foremost love was the Blessed Sacrament. For most Catholics, it takes effort to acquire the right spirit of devotion prior to Mass. Father Philip had the opposite problem: he was so prone to spiritual ecstasy that he had to distract himself from the Mass beforehand with joke books and the like or he would be caught up in a catatonic rapture. Even then, he often had visions during Mass, such as the Christ Child on the altar one Christmas or a glimpse of Paradise during the Consecration. His servers were trained to recognize the signs of his being caught up in divine love; they tugged at his chasuble to bring him back to earth. And I choose that metaphor deliberately, for Saint Philip sometimes levitated during Mass.
His palpitations were at their most vigorous during Mass, sometimes shaking the whole altar; he could barely pour the wine into the chalice. And if he paused only a little at the elevation, his arms would freeze in adoration. God’s outpouring of love into Philip’s soul also made it difficult for him to stay within the boundaries of liturgical decorum. He received from the Chalice (the contents of which, one server attests, looked like pure blood) with such intense affection that the silver and the gilding on the lip were worn off and dented with tooth marks. He also had to say random and distracting things to his server such as “Turn those dogs out” in order to control his ecstatic trembling.
Near the end of his life, Philip received permission from the Pope to say Mass privately in a little chapel near his room. His servers would leave at the Sanctus, bolt the door, return two hours later, and knock. If the saint answered, they would resume the Mass; if he did not, they would try again later. No one knows what experiences Philip had during those hours with his Eucharistic Lord, but his servers said that afterwards he looked like he was on the verge of expiring.
The Oratory
Saint Ignatius of Loyola tried repeatedly to recruit Philip for the Jesuits, but Philip knew that his vocation was to be in the world. Once, when he contemplated withdrawing from public life and becoming a hermit, he had a vision that told him “Rome will be your desert.” Later, when he desired a martyr’s death as a missionary in India, another vision informed him that “Rome will be your India.”
God wanted Philip to be the “Apostle of Rome” (as he was later called) for good reason. At the start of his ministry, the Eternal City was a den of iniquity and neo-paganism, its Popes corrupt and its residents wallowing in vice. By the time of his death at the age of eighty, Philip—along with other Saints like Pope Pius V—had turned the city around. His guiding principle was simple: he wanted everyone to become holy, not necessarily by becoming a cleric or religious but by loving God wherever they were. Centuries before the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness and St. Josemaria Escriva’s mission to sanctify work, St. Philip’s “greatest delight and his special desire was that men should make themselves saints in their own homes.” As early as 1570, someone wrote that Philip had established a school of “spiritual worldlings.” [2]
Accordingly, instead of joining or founding a religious order, Philip began the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of secular clergy living under obedience but not bound by vows. Formally recognized by the Pope in 1575, the Oratorians were given Santa Maria in Vallicella; soon after they built a new church, or Chiesa Nuova, on the site of the old edifice.
It was at Chiesa Nuova that the Oratorians continued their “exercises,” a service consisting of four half-hour sermons on a spiritual reading, Sacred Scripture, Church history, and the life of a Saint. Beautiful music was an important element as well. The great Palestrina, who was a penitent of St. Philip, composed for the service several Laudi, a popular form of singing in late-sixteenth century Italy that combined sacred text, interludes of dialogue, and polyphonic texture. The new music forged under Philip’s influence, a happy medium between the sacred and the secular, was promoted by the Oratorians wherever they went as a part of their efforts to attract youth to the Faith. The genre, familiar to many thanks to Handel’s Messiah, subsequently became known as an “oratorio.”
Prophet of Joy
Saint Philip was renowned for the gift of prophecy and for his miraculous healing of the sick and even raising of the dead, but what made him so beloved was what the Italians call festività, his infectious joy and humor. The saint held that being cheerful “is the true way to advance in every virtue.” His long experience in directing souls, he said, had taught him “that in spiritual matters cheerful men were much more easy to guide than the melancholy.”
Consequently, Philip preserved “perpetual cheerfulness” in himself and went to great lengths to encourage it in others. His room, wherein he would receive strangers as if they were his long-lost children at all hours of the day and night, became known as the “Shelter of Christian Mirth.” He sometimes gave his penitents a playful slap on the cheek, saying “It is not you I am beating, but the devil!” Like a zany Italian uncle, he pulled their hair, caressed their faces, boxed their ears, and held their heads near his heart, all of which caused great joy and consolation. In the words of Saint John Henry Newman, “If ever there was a saint who set his face against humbug, it was Saint Philip.” [3]
Gentleness and Patience
Philip’s good cheer extended into his relations with subordinates, peers, and superiors. There is no easier way to rule, he stated, “than by being gentle and sparing in giving orders; he who wants to be well obeyed should give few commands.” Philip preferred exhortations to commands, saying things like, “I should like you to do this, but if it seems hard I will do it for you.” And when correcting another, he would describe the person’s fault as if it were his own in such a way that the person took the admonition to himself.
Philip was also careful in correcting the vanities of the age. Instead of inveighing against some of the fashions of the time, he would tell his disciples, “Just let a little devotion enter into their hearts, and you may then leave them to themselves; they will soon do all or more than you wish.” Consequently, he never said a word to a particular priest who dressed like a layman; after two weeks, the priest started dressing appropriately on his own accord. One of his female penitents asked if it was a sin to wear extremely high heels. Philip only replied, “Be careful you don’t fall!” (The lady decided against the shoes.) To a male penitent who wore a collar with an inordinately large ruff, Philip simply said, “Ah! I should caress you a good deal oftener than I do if this collar did not hurt my hands.” The man soon stopped wearing it.
When it was necessary to correct a superior, Philip recommended using a third party example, like the prophet Nathan did to King David. And when being rebuked by a superior, he advised showing no anger but returning cheerful in order to show no ill will. His policy in this regard would be put to the test several times, as his popularity earned him envy or suspicion from members of the hierarchy. Among his many trials: the Pope’s vicar, who had been fed misinformation about his activities, severely rebuked the saint and ordered him not to hear confession for fifteen days. But the saint merely forbade his supporters from saying one cross word about the vicar and used these false accusations as an opportunity to grow closer to God. “You will see,” he told his disciples. “When this persecution has achieved the fruit God wants from it, it will come to an end.” [4]
There were also initial tensions between Saint Philip and Pope Saint Pius V, who had heard rumors about “unorthodox” sermons coming out of Philip’s community. Concern had also been voiced about the exercises themselves, since they were conducted in the vernacular—not unlike, it was pointed out, the Lutherans in Germany. But the Pope himself approved the exercises and developed a great esteem for Philip and his followers. Philip in return had the highest opinion of the Pope’s holiness; he kept a biretta and a red shoe that had belonged to Pius V and cherished them as relics. Nevertheless, even Saints can disagree. When Pius V ordered gypsies to be rounded up and used as galley slaves in the naval fleet against the Turks, Philip protested and procured their freedom.
Portrait of Pope St Piusm by Scipione Pulzone, 1570-72
Saint Philip was treated with open contempt at various times by cardinals, priests, laymen, and even prisoners. But the saint’s good cheer and patience eventually won them over. One of his sayings explains his motive: “How patiently Christ, the King and Lord of heaven and earth, bore with the Apostles, enduring at their hands many incivilities and misbeliefs, they being but poor and rough fisherman! How much more ought we to bear with our neighbor, if he treats us with incivility.” [5]
Master of Mirthful Mortification
Philip’s festività also colored his practice of mortification. In the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, he gave “a quaintly humorous turn to the maxims of ascetical theology.” [6] That is putting it mildly. The madcap saint walked through the streets of Rome with half his beard shaved off or wearing a goofy mismatch of clothes. He had his barber cut his hair once in the middle of a crowded plaza and once even in a church nave while Mass was being celebrated. He skipped around like a little boy even when he was an old man, inspiring one astonished onlooker to exclaim, “Look at the old fool there!” When the Pope sent to him a visiting delegation of Polish lords for their spiritual edification, Saint Philip ignored them and listened in rapt attention to a joke book being read. The astonished noblemen stared each other for a while and presently departed, at which Philip told his companion to stop reading, saying that “we have done all that was wanted.”
Why did the saint do these things and many more like them? He wanted above all to be thought of as a worthless person so he could be free of the egoism which chooses one’s reputation over God. As a biographer of Neri notes:
The one who is totally free of egoism, who has given himself completely, is the one who has found perfect joy. Egoists are always the saddest of men, while unclouded joy follows from humility. [7]
St Philip did not deny the value of traditional asceticism (which he also practiced), but he warned: “Take care not to become so attached to the means as to forget the end; and that it is not well to be so taken up mortifying the flesh as to omit mortifying the brain, which after all is the principal matter.” The whole quest for sanctity, as he saw it, could be summed up in the span of three fingers which he placed on his forehead: “to mortify the razionale”—a word which for Philip meant not so much reason but the proud or overheated use of reason. [8] And one of the chief ways reason becomes overheated is by fixating on how one is perceived by others in the theater of life.
An excellent example of his approach: When one of his penitents asked permission to wear a hair shirt, Philip said that he could on one condition: he had to wear it on the outside of his clothes. (The fellow loved Philip so much that he wore it that way for the rest of his life, eventually becoming known as “Berto of the Hair Shirt.”) On another occasion, a Roman prince who had become an Oratorian novice sought full admission into the Congregation. St. Philip told him that one final test would be required: he had to pin a long foxtail to the end of his coat and parade through the streets with all seriousness. When the stunned prince said that he wanted to be an Oratorian for honor and not disgrace, Philip replied that he had come to the wrong place, for the first principle of their community was complete self-renunciation. 
St. Philip Neri is a patron of Rome, of Mandaluyong in the Philippines, and of laughter and humor. He is also the patron of the international seminary of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in Florence. In fact, if you attend Mass on St. Philip’s feast day (May 26) at any of the chapels, churches, or oratories run by the Institute of Christ the King, you may gain under the usual conditions a plenary indulgence. Finally, the Apostle of Rome was chosen to be the patron saint of the U.S. Special Forces because “he embodied the traits of the ideal Special Forces Soldier, Selfless, Superb Teacher, and Inspirational Leader."[9] Special Forces also has a distinguished Order of Saint Philip Neri with Gold, Silver, and Bronze levels of membership.
It is our opinion, however, that Saint Philip Neri should be the intercessor of more than the Green Berets or a single traditionalist seminary. He should—along with other holy figures like Gregory the Great, Pius V, and Pius X—be a patron of all traditionalists, lay and clerical alike. For Saint Philip is ideally suited to confirm us in our virtues and cure us of our vices. Saint Philip loved the traditional Mass and calendar, understood the importance of beauty, and lived ascetically and chastely. But he was also on guard against dourness, scrupulosity, and a penchant for tsk-tsking. In the words of Father Paul Türks,
Saint Philip Neri put his trust in the positive, in grace. What is meant is shown by his way of dealing with many of the evil habits of his day. He did not reject the immoral fashions or the excessive wealth. He did not forbid the luxurious creations of the contemporary culture. He trusted in the love of God, which would do its work in men of itself like a fire or a seed—unnoticed and hidden at first, but already growing. [10]
Pippo Buono, pray for us.

An earlier version of this article appeared as “St. Philip Neri: A Patron Saint of Traditionalism” in The Latin Mass magazine 25:1 (Winter/Spring 2016), pp. 34-38. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

[1] Pietro Giacomo Bacci, The Life of Saint Philip Neri, ed. Frederick Ignatius Antrobus, 2 vols. (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Co., 1902), vol. 1, p. 30. Most of the direct quotations and stories in this article are taken, unless otherwise noted, from Bacci.
[2] Paul Türks, Philip Neri: The Fire of Joy, trans. Daniel Utrecht (Alba House, 1995), 115.
[3] Quoted in Türks, 110.
[4] Türks, 65.
[5] The Maxims and Sayings of St. Philip Neri, ed. F.W. Faber (Athanasius Press, 2009), 62.
[6] Charles Sebastian Ritchie, "St. Philip Romolo Neri," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), retrieved May 25, 2023.
[7] Türks, 126.
[8] Türks, 117.
[9] Retrieved February 21, 2016.
[10] Türks, 114.

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