For forty-five years St. Philip Neri evangelized thousands of people at Rome, from the poor to the popes. Philip won their hearts with his consistent kindness and jovial sense of humor. He became known as the “Second Apostle of Rome” because his ministry promoted a general return to the Christian living.
You can get a feel for the saint’s attractiveness in his maxims, like these:
“The best preparation for prayer is to read the lives of the saints, not from mere curiosity, but quietly and with recollection a little at a time. And to pause whenever you feel your heart touched with devotion.”
“He who does not go down to hell in his lifetime, runs a great risk of going there when he dies.”
“Never try to evade the cross that God sends you, for you will only find a heavier one.”
In 1533, after a dramatic personal experience of God, Philip went to Rome, where he lived in poverty. After several years of solitude and study he sold his books and hit the streets to do the grassroots work of leading people to Christ. Ordained in 1551, he went to live with a community of priests at San Giralomo. He and his associates held conferences in their oratory that gathered people for an evening of study and prayer that climaxed in music or a short pilgrimage to one of the ancient basilicas.
Soon Philip gathered about himself a small group of talented priests that he organized into the Congregation of the Oratory. Philip’s informality characterized the foundation. For example, members were not required to take vows, but only to adhere to the gospel. “If you want to be obeyed,” quipped Philip, “don’t make commandments.” Officially recognized in 1575, the Oratory spread throughout the world and attracted illustrious members such as John Henry Newman.
Like his contemporary St. Teresa of Ávila, Philip Neri was a mystic-in-action. He reported that once at prayer in 1544 he saw a globe of fire enter his mouth and set his heart a flame that permanently afflicted him. The saint did his best to hide his mystical phenomena, but sometimes his ecstasies at Mass lasted so long that the acolytes could leave for an hour’s break. Philip Neri died on May 25, 1595, active till the end and celebrated as the most popular person in Rome.