St. Philip Neri: "The Humorous Saint" (part 1 of 5)

Today Holy Mother Church celebrates a saint very dear to me: St. Philip Neri.

St. Philip is my confirmation saint, and so I look to his example frequently and seek his prayers often. I chose him to be “my saint” for several reasons back when. I will explore these reasons throughout the day today on this blog, as time permits. This is the first of several posts I am going to write up about him on this, his feast day. Right now I’ve got several books open, and more browser windows.

This post focuses on the combination of holiness and geniality central to Philip’s life. It’s a combination we all should strive for, and a combination that made Philip patron saint of Rome.

If every priest, and every religious, and every lay person in the Church followed his example, I have no doubt in my mind: the entire world would be Catholic.

The German poet Goethe called Philip “the humorous saint” in an essay he wrote after having spent a great deal of time studying Philip’s life. “The humorous saint” was actually the title of the essay, and the whole thing was about Philip. I can’t find the essay on the internet, but it is included in The Goethe Treasury. I haven’t read it yet but look forward to.


  • Philip was a very pious man, though not all saw it. And some didn’t believe it, because they saw Philip doing things that, well, raised some eyebrows especially among the elderly folks in the pews. You see, he wasn’t holy in the way that people defined holiness (and the way some still do today); he laughed often, wasn’t always on his knees praying where everyone could see him, wasn’t somber.
  • Some were particularly unhappy with his tendency to go to the bars at night, but he did so for good reason: to spread the faith about Christ to those who clearly needed to hear about it. It has been said that he converted many in this way–not always because of what he said, but because of his mere presence among the people that the “holy of holies” people would overlook and ignore as hopeless causes. Philip knew there was hope in them, too. He knew that some folks were just in tough times, and needed to be consoled, needed to be uplifted, needed to be helped. Philip did it all. It shows us that great holiness can be found in unconventional ways.
  • Prayer was the essence of his life. The story of his life-changing expierence is recounted in several books, but the essence of the story follows. Philip loved spending time in prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He would oftentime spend quite some time visiting seven principal churches of Rome, and in particular loved to pray in the catacombs. The story goes that he was in prayer when he was 29 and was so enflamed with the love of God that the beating of his heart broke his ribs. He knew at that moment the power of the love of God, and worked hard to spread that love to others.
  • The sacraments were also the essence of his life. It is, many believe, to his credit that the reception of daily communion was restored. Rome had long forbidden it and left it only to Sundays, and not many had a problem with this. Philip knew that the Eucharist was the source of all life, and it should of course be offered daily!
  • The American Catholic Saint of the Day entry on Philip today shares that Philip worked to strengthen “a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy.” He was one of the greatest figures of the coutner-reformation, and the American Catholic shares that this is mainly because he was able to “convert to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself.”
  • That said, Philip knew that you didn’t have to be a priest or religious to serve the Church as she deserves. A great number of lay people began to follow him, and he was a lay person during the time he did some of his greatest work. After taking philosophy and theology courses for years, Philip did not want to continue in it, so he stopped and went about converting folks. Years later, his spiritual director, together with nearly everyone else, persuaded him eventually that he would be an excellent priest, and so he did end up as a priest. Philip, not using these words, preached to the world the universal call to holiness and the importance of each vocation as a way to serve God and his Church.
  • Philip had much to teach about simplicity and humility. About the former: He preached against preteniousness, and preached best by walking around in a unique fashion: he always wore old clothes, an interesting hat, and large white shoes. As for humility, he spent lots of time in hospitals visiting people, but he frequently helped nurses by making beds and cleaning floors before and after his visits. They loved him!
  • One of the symbols of Philip is the rosary, precisly because of his devotion to our Blessed Mother. I imagine much of his success is due to her.


  • Of course, all this holiness was mixed with humor, joy, and hapiness. He wasn’t pie in the sky holy–the image most think of when they think of the word holy. And ultimately, he was so successful in his ministry because of the joy and peace he brought to people. He pointed to Christ–not himself–in a way few did.
  • The word “geniality” is defined, in part, as “conducive to life, growth, or comfort”. Philip dedicated himself to this. His ministry led many to life, to growth, to comfort. But he led them to life in Christ, growth in holiness, and consolation and peace that can come only from Christ. They came through Philip, alter Christus–“another Christ”.
  • Philip once shared that his two favorite books were the New Testament and a book of jokes. At a retreat this past year, I remember someone paid this tribute to someone else: “Life can be hard on a lot of people. But you make it easier; you bring joy to the world.” You can’t be a Christian if you have not joy! Philip knew this.
  • Philip loved to visit hospitals and prisons, and he would always leave people laughing. He made the sick, the imprisoned, his friends. And in so doing, he brought people to change their lives…for the good.
  • Philip loved singing. He encouraged the singing of lauda spirituale (information here).
  • Philip’s advice was always helpful, but he usually inserted humor. Take this story: once, a young priest asked Philip what the best prayer would be to say after a wedding. Philip responded: “A prayer for peace.”

Some good quotes:

  • “A glad spirit attains perfection more quickly than any other.”
  • “I will have no sadness in my house.”
  • “Christian joy is a gift of God flowing from a good conscience.”
  • “Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us try harder to have a good life, thus God’s servants must always be in good spirits.”
  • “A heart filled with joy is more easily made perfect than one that is sad.”

One thought on “St. Philip Neri: "The Humorous Saint" (part 1 of 5)

  1. Mike..I've not had a chance to read all of these yet, but I'll come back.
    This said has some very similar qualities and an attitude like St. John Bosco! I didn't know some of these things about him. đŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing.


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