St. Philip Neri was born in Florence in 1515 and was one of four children. He was known from his youth for being cheerful and obedient. He was even called “good little Phil.”
Philip was educated early in his life by the Dominican friars near his home, and when he was 18, he went to live with a wealthy family member in San Germano to assist in and possibly inherit the family business.
Soon after his arrival in San Germano, he experienced a mystical vision that he described as being his Christian conversion. After this vision, he lost interest in material goods and owning property and even participating in the business he was supposed to inherit. He felt called to live his life solely for Christ and His Church.
Philip left for Rome and became a live-in tutor for the sons of a man he knew in Florence. The two boys improved in their education and in their faith and were a testament to Philip’s talent in bringing out the best in people. During this time, Philip also grew in his own spirituality. He prayed a lot and practiced an ascetical life. By 1535, he decided to start formally studying theology and philosophy at St. Augustine’s monastery. Though he was a great student, after three years he gave up the idea of becoming a priest. Instead, he worked to re-evangelize the city of Rome--starting with the poorest of the city. He started talking to people in the streets and in the public squares and he quickly made friends with the people he encountered. He not only made friends with the people he found, but he began to lead them toward better lives. He had a great personality and a great sense of humor, and these characteristics drew others toward him. He encouraged groups of people to gather for discussions and prayer and even music. He would say to them, “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?” Once he gathered these people to himself, he also guided them into doing good works––including helping the sick in hospitals or encouraging others to live more holy lives.
In 1544, Philip saw what looked like a ball of fire that entered his mouth. This event caused him to feel his heart dilate, and he began to feel such divine love that he cried out to God, “Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no more.” From then on, Philip had a swelling over his heart. Though it did not cause him physical pain, it was discovered after his death that two of his ribs were broken as a result of the swelling.
Philip was known for his sense of humor and would do almost anything to make others laugh. He wore over-large shoes like a clown, dressed in strange clothing, and even wore his clothing inside out and shaved his beard only on one side. He played good-natured pranks on others and read joke books frequently. He is sometimes said to have “laughed himself to heaven.”
Four years later, Philip founded a confraternity for poor laymen to gather together for prayer and service to the poor: the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity. And years later, after becoming a priest and finding joyful work in the confessional, he also founded the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory. His work also drew him close to other holy men like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, St. Pope Pius V, and St. Charles Borromeo.
Philip was described by one of his biographers as “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.”
St. Philip Neri is depicted in priest’s robes with light around his heart or sometimes a flaming heart in his hand to symbolize the story of his swelling, joyful heart. He is also depicted with a big smile on his face to reflect his patronage.
St. Philip Neri is the patron saint of Rome, the US Special Forces, humor, and joy.