Philip Neri was born in Florence in the year 1515, one of four children of the notary Francesco Neri. The mother died while the children were very young, her place being filled by a capable stepmother. From infancy Philip had a docile, merry disposition. They called him "Pippo buono," "good little Phil," for he was a dutiful, attractive, cheerful lad, popular with all who knew him.
At eighteen Philip was sent to the town of San Germano, to live with a childless kinsman who had a business there and would be likely to make Philip his apprentice and heir. It is hard to imagine anyone with less aptitude for business than Philip. Soon after his arrival he had a mystical experience which in after years he spoke of as his "conversion," and which radically changed his life. He left his kinsman's house, to set out for Rome without money or plan, trusting entirely to God's providence. In Rome he found shelter under the roof of a former Florentine, one Galeotto Caccia, a customs official, who offered him an attic and the bare necessaries of life, in return for which Philip was to give lessons to Caccia's two small sons. Under his tutoring the little boys improved rapidly in all respects, according to their grateful mother. This promised well for Philip's future human relationships. Indeed, as we shall see, he had a natural talent for bringing out the best in people of all ages and conditions.
Except for the hours he devoted to his pupils, Philip seems to have passed his first two years at Rome as a recluse, spending much time in prayer in his bare, uncomfortable attic. He ate frugal meals of bread, water, and a few olives or vegetables. It was a period of intense preparation, and at its dose he emerged from obscurity with his spirit strengthened, his resolve to live for God confirmed. He now took courses in philosophy and theology at the Sapienza and at St. Augustine's monastery. For three years he worked so hard that he was considered an unusually promising scholar. Then, quite suddenly, moved by some inner prompting, he put an end to classes and studying, sold most of his books, and launched on a mission to the people of Rome.
Religion was at a low ebb in the papal city, which had not yet recovered from the atrocious depredations of the German and Spanish armies of 1527, a decade earlier. There were also grave abuses within the Church, and although they had long been recognized, too little was being done to cure them. Elections to the Sacred College were controlled by the Medici family, with the result that the cardinals, with a few notable exceptions, were princes of the state, worldlings who thought in terms of power and politics, rather than men dedicated to God and the Church. The enthusiasm for classical writers and the tendency towards scepticism, fostered by the humanists of the Renaissance, had gradually substituted pagan for Christian ideals in Italian intellectual circles. Indifference and luxury, if not corruption, were rife among the clergy, many of whom allowed their churches to fall into disrepair, seldom said Mass, and completely neglected their flocks. Little wonder that the laity were lapsing into cynicism and disbelief ! To fill the people of Rome with new ardor, to re-evangelize the city, became Philip Neri's life work.
He began in the most direct way possible, making acquaintances on street corners and in the public squares, where people were inclined to loiter. At first he interested himself especially in the young Florentines who were employed in the banks and shops of the busy Sant'Angelo quarter near the Vatican. He has been compared to Socrates for the way he could seize on opportunities for engaging in conversation and then lead his hearers on by questions and suggestions to consider a better way of life. His warm friendliness and lively sense of humor would quickly catch the attention of passersby, and once caught, they found it difficult to break away. By this warm, personal approach he gradually prevailed on many to give up their careless way of life. His customary question, "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" soon brought a response, provided he led the way. Losing no time in converting good intentions into action, he would take them to wait on the sick in the hospitals or to pray in the Seven Churches, one of Philip's own favorite devotions. His days were wholly given up to others, but towards evening it was his habit to retire into solitude, to spend the night in a church porch or in the catacombs beside the Appian Way, gathering strength for another day's work.
In one of the grottoes along the Appian Way he had an experience which affected him profoundly. He was praying on the eve of Pentecost, 1544, when there appeared to him what seemed to be a globe of fire; it entered his mouth and afterwards he felt a dilation of the heart. Immediately he was filled with such paroxysms of divine love that he fell to the ground exclaiming, "Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no morel " When he had come to himself and risen up, he discovered a swelling over his heart, though neither then nor later did. it give him pain. From that day on, under stress of spiritual emotion, he was apt to be seized with palpitations; at such times he would ask God to mitigate His visitations lest he should die of love.
In the year 1548, when Philip had been carrying out his informal mission for some ten years, he founded, with the help of his confessor, Father Persiano Rossa, a confraternity of poor laymen who met for spiritual exercises in the church of San Salvatore in Campo. He popularized the devotion of the Forty Hours, and undertook to provide for needy pilgrims, a work which led to the building of the famous hospital Santa Trinita. During the Year of Jubilee of 1575 it cared for no less than a hundred and forty-five thousand pilgrims. Later it received convalescents also.
Thus by the time he was thirty-four, Philip had accomplished a great deal. His confessor, however, was convinced that as a priest his work would be even more effective. Philip's humility made him shrink from taking Holy Orders, but at last, on May 23, 1551, he was ordained. He went to live with Father Rossa and other priests at San Girolamo and thereafter carried on his mission mainly through the confessional. Starting before daybreak and continuing hour after hour, he sat in the tribunal of penance, while men and women of all ages and ranks flocked to him. Sometimes he conducted informal discussions with those who desired to lead a better life, or he would read aloud to them, choosing the lives of the saints, martyrs, and missionaries. The story of the heroic life and death of St. Francis Xavier so inspired Philip that he himself considered service in the foreign mission field: a Cistercian whom he consulted persuaded him that Rome was to be his Indies.
To accommodate the increasing number of those who attended Philip's discussions, a large room was built over the nave of San Girolamo. Several other priests were appointed to assist him. The people called them "Oratorians" because they rang a little bell to summon the faithful to prayers in their "oratory." The actual foundation of the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory was laid a few years later, when Philip presented five of his young followers for ordination and sent them to serve the church of San Giovanni, which had been put in his charge by fellow Florentines living in Rome. The future cardinal and Church historian, Caesar Baronius, was among them. Philip drew up for them some simple rules: they were to share a common table and perform spiritual exercises under his direction, but they were not to bind themselves to the life by vow or to renounce their property. The organization grew rapidly, although it met with opposition in certain quarters. In 1575, the Congregation received the formal approbation of Pope Gregory XIII, who later bestowed on it the ancient church of Santa Maria in Vellicella. The building was in a ruinous condition and far too small. Philip was not long in deciding to demolish it and rebuild on a large scale.
He had no money, but contributions poured in from his friends, rich and poor. Pope Gregory and Charles Borromeo gave generously, as did other prominent men. Cardinals and princes were now among Philip's disciples, though he sometimes shocked them by his impulsiveness. His desire was always to establish a close, human bond with others, even though it meant indulging in a wine-drinking contest, practical joking, or other undignified behavior. He acted in a jocular manner to conceal his deep emotion, or to put himself on a level with those around him. Humility was the virtue he strove most of all to practice, but of course he could not conceal his extraordinary gifts or sanctity. More than once he foretold events which later came to pass. He lived in such a state of spiritual exaltation that at times it was with difficulty that he carried on his daily labors. Men declared that his face often glowed with a celestial radiance.
By April, 1577, work on the Nuova Chiesa, or New Church, had advanced sufficiently for the Congregation of the Oratory to be transferred there. Philip stayed at San Girolamo for another seven years before he moved to quarters in the New Church. Although he ate his meals apart from the group, he was far from leading the life of a solitary. Not only did his spiritual sons have free access to him, but his room was constantly crowded by others. Rich and poor mounted the steps that led to his refuge at the top of the house, with its balcony looking over the roofs of Rome. The Italian people loved and venerated him, and visitors came from other countries to speak with him. Thus he continued his apostolate when the infirmities of age prevented him from leading an active life. The College of Cardinals frequently sought his advice, and although he refrained from becoming involved in political matters, he broke this rule when he persuaded Pope Clement VII to withdraw the excommunication and anathema laid on Henry IV of France. In the words of one of his biographers, "He was all things to all men.... When he was called upon to be merry, he was so; if there was a demand upon his sympathy, he was equally ready.... In consequence of his being so accessible and willing to receive all comers, many went to him every day, and some continued for the space of thirty, nay, forty years, to visit him very often both morning and evening, so that his room went by the agreeable nickname of the "Home of Christian mirth." The tradition of this genial saint was very much alive two hundred years later, when the German poet Goethe was living in Rome. He heard so much of Neri that he studied the sources and wrote a highly appreciative essay about him, entitled, "The Humorous Saint."
Two years before his death Neri retired from his office of Superior in favor of his disciple, Caesar Baronius. He obtained permission from the Pope to celebrate Mass daily in a little Oratory adjoining his room. So enraptured did he become at such times that it was the practice of those who attended to retire respectfully at the <Agnus Dei>. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, May 25, 1595, Philip was in a radiantly happy mood, and his physician told him that he had not looked so well for ten years. He alone realized that his hour had come. All day he heard confessions and saw visitors as usual, but before retiring he said: "Last of all, we must die." About midnight, he had a severe haemorrhage and the fathers in the house were called to his bedside. He was dying, and Baronius read the commendatory prayers, and then besought him to say a parting word or at least to bless his sons once more. Unable to speak, Philip raised his hand, and in the act of benediction passed to his reward. He had reached the ripe age of eighty and his work was done. His body rests in the New Church, which the Oratorians still serve. Six years later he was beatified; Pope Gregory XV canonized him in 1622. Even during his lifetime he had received the title of "Apostle of Rome."
One of the most famous members of the Oratorian order, Cardinal Newman, wrote of Neri nearly three hundred years after his death, "he contemplated as the idea of his mission, not the propagation of the faith, nor the exposition of doctrine, nor the catechetical schools; whatever was exact and systematic pleased him not; he put from him monastic rule and authoritative speech, as David refused the armor of his king.... He came to the Eternal City and he sat himself down there, and his home and his family gradually grew up around him, by the spontaneous accession of materials from without. He did not so much seek his own as draw them to him. He sat in his small room, and they in their gay, worldly dresses, the rich and the wellborn, as well as the simple and the illiterate, crowded into it. In the mid-heats of summer, in the frosts of winter still was he in that low and narrow cell at San Girolamo, reading the hearts of those who came to him, and curing their souls' maladies by the very touch of his hand.... And they who came remained gazing and listening till, at length, first one and then another threw off their bravery, and took his poor cassock and girdle instead; or, if they kept it, it was to put haircloth under it, or to take on them a rule of life, while to the world they looked as before."