Visions and Mystical Experiences of Saint Philip Neri
Apostle of Rome
In St. Philip's time, the Church was at a low point. Renaissance had taken its toll on the spirituality of most religious in Rome. The Medicis controlled the College of Cardinals. Choice candidates became princes of the land, rather than of the Church. The writings had become extremely secular and pagan. Morals and morale were at an all-time low. Severe abuses were occurring, as a result of giving into the worldliness of Renaissance, and all it stood for. Everybody knew all about these abuses, but nobody did anything about them. [Is this not happening today?]
To this mixed-up world, a Saint was born! St. Philip was born to a well-to-do family in Florence. From the time he was an infant, he demonstrated a gentleness and lovability that earned him the nickname "Pippo buono", or "good little Phil." He came from a good family, but not a particularly spiritual family. His father was a successful businessman; life was very normal and very happy. Then his mother died. He was very young; the little guy was lost; the Lord sent a caring step-mother to fill the void left by his most precious mother. His new mother loved him and his sisters dearly, and tended to them as if she had borne them. The attitudes and lifestyle of young Philip's family was typical of that time - Do not harm your neighbor; support the Church financially; go to Mass (all in that order), and you will have nothing to worry about. In contrast, Philip showed signs of holiness at an early age. But when he reached eighteen, it was time to prepare for the world and its demands.
Now the Neri family had a rich relative in Monte Cassino, who had succeeded handsomely in business. He asked Philip's parents to send their son to him. He not only wanted to train Philip in the affairs of the business world, but his intentions were to leave his entire operation to him, someday. Now, Philip was loved and trusted by everyone he met. His father believed, by sending him to his uncle he would receive the invaluable training which, with his outgoing disposition, would do him well in the world. This was his father's plan for sending him, his earthly father; but not his Heavenly Father!
He was obedient, and so, Philip, now 18 years old, was on his way to the grown up world of business, or so everyone thought. Although he was not particularly happy, he went to Monte Cassino and his uncle. Not many days passed, when he knew this life was not for him. The hounds of Heaven were gnawing at the eighteen year old's heart. He had always been spiritual. But now, in this new place, it was not as easy to pray, as it had been at home. Every chance he had, he'd finish his work quickly, run off and pray!
Now, as providence would have it, there was a place near Monte Cassino, called Split Mountain. When Our Lord gave up His Spirit to God the Father and died on the Cross, the curtain of the Temple ripped down the middle. We believe that the cry of the Angels was so anguished, at seeing their Lord and God die so horribly, the curtain could not withstand the furor and it tore in half. The tradition on Monte Cassino has always been that at the very same moment that the curtain split in Jerusalem, the mountain (Split Mountain) split in two, as well.
A Shrine was built; and a huge crucifix was placed there, which commemorates the death of Jesus Christ and our redemption. On this holy mountain, at this Shrine, St. Francis, in the Thirteenth Century, came and prayed; and then in the Sixteenth Century, Philip came and prayed in front of the same crucifix, on the same mountain.
When Philip first set out to pray at the Shrine, nestled in the crevice of the Split Mountain, his original focus was to pray and through prayer get closer to God. He would go to Mass there and pray for God's Will in his life. Little did he know that God would talk to him on this remote mountain and change his life.
Now, it just happened, there is also a Shrine dedicated to the Blessed Trinity on this mountain. One day, while praying, he had a vision and was told to start a Confraternity of the Blessed Trinity. It was then and there that he received the inspiration to go to Rome! He made his decision based on this mystical experience, which he said brought about his "conversion". His life took a 180 degree turn. He converted from a good young man headed toward the world and all it had to offer, to a deeply spiritual young man willing to throw caution to the wind and go without hesitation, wherever the Lord sent him. Nothing of the world had any value to young Philip.
Philip goes to Rome
He set out for Rome with no possessions. When he arrived there, an Archduke who also came from Florence, provided him with shelter. His once-a-day ration was barely enough to eat - some bread, water and a few olives or other vegetables, his room - an unfinished attic with bare floors, a bed, a chair and a line upon which to hang his clothes. But for him, it was God's Will and he was quite content. Philip was hired to tutor the Archduke's young sons in exchange for his room and board. The boys' mother testified that the two, who had been unruly, became "little saints" under his direction. What developed was that soon they, too, wanted to devote their lives to God; and so, the three - Neri and the two young boys would go to the Basilicas and down to the Catacombs (specially St. Sebastian) to pray.
Outside of tutoring and praying with his two young friends and students, Philip spent the first two years in Rome, as a virtual recluse, his spare hours in solitary prayer. Then, he went from his little self-styled hermitage to studying at the Sapienza and the Sant'Agostino, two well-regarded schools, under the Augustinians. He became a brilliant student in philosophy and theology. Philip kept persevering, full steam ahead, in this direction for three years, and then, as urgently as he had begun, he just stopped!
For the last three years, whenever he had a chance, between his studies and classes, Philip would go off to pray. He would look upon Christ bleeding on the Crucifix. Then, he would go into ecstasy and enter so deeply into the Passion of Our Lord, it was as if he were there with the Lord on the Cross, suffering and dying. Was this what had precipitated his sudden change of heart?
Possibly the reason behind his metanoia, (conversion) his sudden change in direction, was due to the sad condition of the Church and her needs. In 1526, Rome had been sacked and she was slowly recovering from the rape and pillaging. The Church had been affected; priests rarely celebrated Mass; scandals spread about the clergy; no one went to church anymore in Rome.
We have to believe that Philip Neri had a very special relationship with Our Lord Jesus, because he made radical about-face modifications in his life at a minute's notice. Jesus knew that Philip was not someone content with just going through the motions, and He could and would work with that. If he had ever been made a cardinal, Philip would not have been a landowner, but a prince of the Church.
All we know is that he sold all his books. He felt the call to do something extreme. So, he went out and stood on the street corners of Rome and talked to whoever would listen. In short, he was answering the call to evangelize Rome. Through this, he earned the title: "Apostle of Rome."
He had an overpowering urgency to create change. Something very interesting happened. Young people from the surrounding offices, banks, and shops, gathered around him and listened! The qualities that his father had seen in him, God would use to bring these young fertile minds and souls to do His Will. When he spoke, they gravitated toward this troubadour of the young; they joined in with his great sense of humor, laughed at his jokes, and cried when he spoke of that God Who had lived and died for them.
You would have thought that this being the early stages of Renaissance, everybody would be looking for things not spiritual, not church, more of the world - secular, artistic and fun. But that was not the case. Not everyone was caught up in the paganism that had become so fashionable. Actually, the rank and file, the little people in the Church like you and me, were looking for Jesus. But they didn't know where to go, or whom to ask, or what to do. They didn't want to join in the permissiveness that was rampant. But they needed someone to say it was all right not to want those things, but to want something of a higher level. That someone was Philip. He gave them that. He satisfied their hunger for more. First, he won them with his beautiful personality, and great sense of humor. Then, it didn't take long before he had them really hearing him with their minds and hearts.
When he greeted the young people he would ask: "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" And they responded, following him, joining him in corporal works of mercy, visiting hospitals, prisons, the elderly and the sick. They realized more gratification and self-worth from this, than from all the Renaissance perversion which was being thrown at them. They started to gather with Philip Neri in his small room, the laity, priests, nobility and commoners, all would come and pray; and through this, he formed what is now known as the Oratory of the Laity. Vatican Council II affirmed his Apostolate.
He founded a Confraternity of Laity who were formed primarily to pray and tend to the needs of the pilgrims who were coming to Rome for the Holy Year. The pilgrims of that day traveled with much love and devotion for Mother Church, but little more. They were hungry, needed shelter and often medical care, but mostly they came thirsting for the Word of God. As most pilgrims were extremely poor, the members of the Confraternity took full charge of them. They tended the sick personally and brought them to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit when they were in need of professional care. They provided food and lodging to those without a place to stay, which was most of the pilgrims.
Rome was not built up the way it is today; there were no hotels. Taking over homes, the members of the Confraternity made the first pilgrimage houses, one for men and one for women. If you came from a long distance, they gave you five days lodging, from near, three days lodging. When the Holy Year was over, some of the pilgrims were too sick to return home. The Confraternity stayed on and cared for them.
St. Philip is pierced with the Flame of Love
St. Philip Neri had a mystical experience, similar to those of Padre Pio, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Theirs were called Transverberation of the Heart. They actually saw an Angel pierce their hearts. For the rest of their lives, they literally burned with love of Jesus. They all felt a swelling, an enlargement of the heart.
During the day, Philip Neri spent his every waking hour serving God's children, but at night he would retire to the catacombs and pray. He had been praying in St. Sebastian's Catacomb, when he saw a huge globe of fire soar toward him. He felt it go into his mouth, down his throat, through his entire body, and finally rest in his heart. The heat burned like an inner flame. He began to convulse with emotion. He was so full of love, he thought he would explode. Every part of his body tingled. He experienced so great an ecstasy, he cried out: "Stop Lord! I cannot take anymore. Anymore and I will die." This remained with him the rest of his life. His heart became so enlarged, when he died two prominent scientists from the Vatican examined him and discovered that two of his ribs had broken to accommodate the tremendously distended heart.
Saint of the Earthquake
He was known as Saint of the Earthquake, because when his heart beat, it made such a loud noise, it shook the room; it felt like an earthquake was rocking the house. They said, it could be felt all the way to St. Peter's Basilica.
From that day on, he never knew when he would be overcome with this fierce tremor, his heart beating with such intensity his whole body shook. Although this outward manifestation troubled him, the Lord so filled Him with His Love, he radiated! All this took place before he was ordained a priest.
He had been of the Laity; he had formed a Confraternity of Laity whose charism was to serve other Laity. He never felt called to be a priest. He never felt worthy to be a priest. No amount of persuasion would convince him to become a priest. It was only when his confessor ordered him that he was finally convinced, and Philip was ordained at age thirty-four. He continued his apostolate of speaking to people, and in that way bringing them back to the Church. However, now the main vehicle he used was the Confessional. He spent hours and hours each day counselling penitents.
He began a practice of having dialogues with the large group of penitents who spent hours, on long lines at the church, waiting to go to confession. A big room was set up above the church. Followers of the community of Philip Neri would flock there in great numbers to hear his lectures.
Now keep in mind, this was during the Renaissance, when there were so many distractions of every kind available down the block, or around the corner. Yet these people would rather be in church, listening to Philip Neri talk about Jesus.
The decadence and paganism of the past was hard to do away with in one day. At the time of carnivals, revelers lined the streets, engaging in all kinds of debauchery. Philip Neri gathered up young people who, rather than participate in this pagan behavior, instead processed through Rome from one church to another, to seven churches: St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul, St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence, and The Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.
When the procession was over, they all gathered together and broke bread. Now, when you want something done, enflame the hearts and minds of the Laity. (Read how the Laity built the first Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, Canada, in "Visionaries, Mystics and Stigmatists" by Bob and Penny Lord,) A group of people formed, quite a few of them from the aristocracy, and they became part of Philip Neri's Confraternity. They had started first by listening, and then making the lessons their own doing. They organized what we might call today, outdoor picnics; they hired the finest musicians to play, prepared small meals, and served all who had been in the procession, rich and poor alike. After the picnic was over, the nobility gathered all the dishes, cleaned the area, and tended the needs of all, while Philip Neri taught the Faith. Conversions came about!
The Oratory grew even more than before, after Philip Neri was ordained a priest, adding to its numbers those to whom he had ministered. When the Congregation was called to prayer in the Oratory, a bell was rung to get their attention. Thus began the tradition of the Oratorians, which ultimately became a Community. Fr. Philip Neri was its founder. Some years later, when Philip drew up a modest
Rule for a small number of devotees who had become priests, they were called the Oratorians.
His Confraternity blossomed; more and more disciples joined. The Pope gave them a run-down church; they tore it down, and rebuilt on its foundation, a new church, designed to glorify the Lord. However, when it was ready, everybody moved into it except Philip Neri, the superior. He wanted to stay in his secluded living quarters, where he had spent so much of his life, where the Lord had worked so powerfully. But obedience is the keyword. It didn't make much sense for his whole community to headquarter out of this beautiful edifice, and for him not to be with them. So, out of obedience to the Pope and his Community, he joined them.
For the last twenty years of his life, he ministered to many people from his room at the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. A veritable Who's who of the Church, and the world, passed through those doors, asking for guidance. It was in this way that he was most successful, and felt most comfortable. It was the same as he had done from the beginning, speaking in the streets, and then in the confessional. He was able to fight the evils of the Renaissance most powerfully from this intimate vantage point. The royalty of the world and of the Church came to him for advice, as well as those in his community.
On May 25, 1595, forty four years and two days after he was ordained, at age eighty, Philip Neri gave his body and soul over to his Lord. He joined the Communion of Saints in Heaven. But here on earth, his work continued vigorously. His followers begat more followers who begat more followers.
The Poor Souls in Purgatory
St. Philip had always had a great devotion to the Souls in Purgatory. He taught his Oratorians to pray for the Poor Souls, to do redemptive suffering for them, to offer up good works and especially have Masses said for them, as there is nothing that moves the Father's Heart like the Sacrifice of the Mass. Those who had been part of his Community, or under his spiritual direction, held a special place in his heart. Many times, he was visited by those of his Community, who had passed on, asking for prayers. Very often they returned to thank him for what he had done for them, how through his prayers, most powerfully during the Mass, he had kept them out of the pits of Hell, and instead brought them to Purgatory, where they had confident assurance that they would one day share in the Beatific Vision.
After our Saint's death, a holy priest was praying before his tomb when St. Philip Neri appeared to him in radiant glory. The priest recognized him - It was the glorified St. Philip, surrounded by blessed spirits! The priest asked him the meaning of these spirits. He replied that these were the souls who had been under his spiritual direction during life, and for whose release from Purgatory, he had prayed. Having attained entry into Heaven through him, they had come to meet him upon his death, and usher him into the Kingdom. They were so grateful to St. Philip for praying for them and offering Masses for their release from Purgatory, they had prayed for him till the day he died.
We're told that the Souls in Purgatory cannot do anything to help themselves. They can pray to our Guardian Angels to remind us to pray for them. The Poor Souls can pray for us, but they can't pray for each other or for themselves. We, on the other hand, can pray and have Masses offered for them, with full knowledge that we have Souls in Purgatory and Heaven who are praying for us and our salvation. We're told that upon entry into Heaven, these souls immediately intercede for those who have prayed for their release. Remember, now they are Saints in Heaven.
Then, when we breath our last, as with Philip Neri, maybe the Souls we prayed for, will escort us to Heaven.