He was born in Florence in 1515. At the age of eighteen he went to Rome, and earned his living as a tutor. He undertook much-needed charitable work among the young men of the city, and started a brotherhood to help the sick poor and pilgrims.
He was advised that he could do more good as a priest, and was ordained in 1551. He built an oratory over the church of San Girolamo, where he invented services, consisting of spiritual readings and hymns, which were the origin of the oratorio (tradition is a good thing; but innovation also has its place). He continued to serve the young men of Rome, rich and poor alike, with religious discussions and by organising charitable enterprises. He had a particular care for the young students at the English College in Rome, studying for a missionary life and probable martyrdom in England.
He inspired other clergy to emulate him, and formed them into the Congregation of the Oratory. Oratorian foundations still flourish in many countries today. He died in Rome in 1595.
St Philip Neri was an enemy of solemnity and conventionality. When some of his more pompous penitents made their confession to him (he was famous as a confessor) he imposed salutary and deflating penances on them, such as walking through the streets of Rome carrying his cat (he was very fond of cats). When a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh. When people looked up to him too much, he did something ridiculous so that they should not respect someone who was no wiser – and no less sinful – than they were. In every case there was an excellent point to his pranks: to combat pride, or melancholy, or hero-worship.
Laughter is not much heard in churches: perhaps that is to be expected… but outside church, Christians should laugh more than anyone else – laugh from sheer joy, that God bothered to make us, and that he continues to love us despite the idiots we are. Everyone is a sinner, but Christians are sinners redeemed – an undeserved rescue that we make even less deserved by everything we do. It is too serious a matter to be serious about: all we can reasonably do is rejoice.
Very many of the saints, not just St Philip, have an abiding terror of being looked up to. For they know their imperfections better than anyone else, and being revered by other people is doubly bad. It is bad for the others, who should be revering God instead, and for themselves, because they might be tempted to believe their own image and believe themselves to be worthy.
We are not saints yet, but we, too, should beware. Uprightness and virtue do have their rewards, in self-respect and in respect from others, and it is easy to find ourselves aiming for the result rather than the cause. Let us aim for joy, rather than respectability. Let us make fools of ourselves from time to time, and thus see ourselves, for a moment, as the all-wise God sees us.