Feast Day: May 26th | Priest, Second Apostle of Rome, Founder of Oratories of Secular Clergy | Imagery: Priestly garb, especially “Neri Style” Chasuble; Looking up to Heaven, Surrounded by saints, or children, White beard, Heart aflame, Holding lilies, Book, or Cruficix | Patronage: Laughter, Comedians, Artists, Writers
Fr. Philip Neri’s final day was pretty typical for him: hearing confessions, celebrating Mass, engaging visitors in banter as well as spiritual conversation, living with brother priests in one of the oratories that he founded. And, it was Corpus Christi, the day on which the whole Church celebrates the Body and Blood of Christ! He had begun his walk after the Lord as the Council of Trent was radically calling all Christians, especially priests, back to holiness and a faithfulness to the truths of the faith. Philip was not yet a priest, but had already begun to meet with ardent laymen and women, talking about the faith, assisting the poor, going on excursions outside of Rome to visit the ancient churches (he restored the tradition of walking between the 7 most ancient of the cities churches, which stretched back to the first seven deacons of that city) and enjoy each other’s company over picnics and singing and praying together (he began the famous 40-hour devotions that continue to our day, when people sign up for shifts over an entire weekend to accompany Our Lord in Adoration of His presence in the Eucharist!)
He would bring this ardor, and joy, to his ministry as a priest as well. Often called the “Second Apostle of Rome” (after St. Peter himself, though of course St. Paul had also finished his life in the Eternal City), by his example and candor, Philip had brought so many people back to the practice of their faith, and a joyful practice of the faith, that he earned this astonishing title! One famous story comes to my mind that illustrates these characteristics and indicates his holiness.
As persecution against the Church raged in England (following Henry VIII’s defection from the Church having been refused an annulment of his valid marriage to Catherine of Aragon; though probably at the time of this story the persecution continued under Queen Elizabeth I), Fr. Philip would sit outside of his oratory greeting those that walked by, and each day the seminarians who had fled England to receive their formation elsewhere, and who were preparing in Rome to return to their persecuted homeland, would walk past on their way to class. The every-cheerful Philip would call out to the plucky young men “Salvete flores martyrum!” The phrase literally means “Greetings flowers of the martyrs!”, and I suspect would remind each of them the seriousness of their vocation! (The holy Philip had been asked by one of the first to go back to England for his blessing before that new priest strode into the jaws of death and apparently he took it as his work there in Rome to encourage the young men in the preparations for such a fate.)
That story is actually passed onto us by St. John Henry Newman, who would convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism some 300 years later in England, experiencing a very different kind of persecution there, one, at least, that didn’t lead to his death. It reminds me that each of us is given the precise grace we need to be God’s instrument in our lives. Philip didn’t head off to England to die a martyr’s death – God didn’t ask that of him – but perhaps those young priests that were called to the ultimate sacrifice, received just enough grace each morning to stay faithful each day to the Lord’s call to them.
– Fr. Dominic was ordained a priest on May 26th, St. Philip Neri’s feast day. Many of the days while he was studying in Rome he walked past the Church where St. Philip is buried, Chiesa Nuovo and recalled one or more of the many wonderful stories told about the great saint. One final tale: to a person who confessed the sin of gossip, Philip asked for their penance that they tear open a feather pillow from the Church’s belltower … and then go and try to collect all the feathers. Detraction is similarly impossible to reverse!