St Philip Neri

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Priest, reformer and founder. The son of a lawyer, Philip Neri was born in Florence in 1515. He was educated by the Dominicans before being apprenticed to an uncle's mercantile business. At 17 he went to Rome where he became a tutor in the house of a nobleman, wrote poetry, and studied theology and philosophy. From 1538 he formed a brotherhood of laymen who met together to pray and work with pilgrims and the sick. He spent much of his time at night praying in the catacomb of St Sebastian. In 1544 he is said to have had a mystical experience which permanently affected his physical heart.

Philip was ordained in 1551. He went to live at the clergy house at San Girolamo where he soon made a name as a confessor. An oratory was built over the church where religious addresses and discussions took place and work for the sick and needy was organised.

Musical services were also held here, consisting of a new composition on a religious theme sung by solo voices and a choir. This was the start of the oratorio.

In 1575 he formed the Congregation of the Oratory. For the next 33 years the Oratory was at the centre of religious life in Rome. Philip took a special interest in the young, and often met with the seminarians studying at the English College preparing for the perilous mission to England under Elizabeth I.

Known for his charismatic leadership, sense of humour, humility and kindly manner, he had many friends. Philip once said: 'A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than one cast down' .

Over his door he posted a small sign that read, "The House of Christian Mirth." En route to a ceremony in his honour, he once shaved off half his beard, as a way of poking fun at himself. "Christian joy is a gift from God, flowing from a good conscience," he said.

Much of St Philip Neri's humour was a way of keeping himself humble, as he engaged in what could only be called acts of public silliness, like wearing a cushion on his head like a turban and wearing a foxtail coat in the middle of the summer.

When a young priest asked Philip what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, the future saint said, "A prayer for peace."

Often described as the 'Second Apostle of Rome' Philip however did not escape criticism. Some were shocked by his friendliness and informality. He said that the path of perfection was for laypeople as much as for the clergy and religious. He preached more about love and spiritual integrity than physical austerity. He was very fond of cats. St Philip died in Rome in 1595. He was canonised in 1622.

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