A Humorous Saint

His name is Philip Neri. He was comical. Yet there was ‘method in his madness’ as Shakespeare would say. Once he shaved off half his beard and went into the sanctuary and started preaching! You can imagine the comments and the sarcasm of the audience!

The reason? He realized that hero worship is dangerous for a Christian. So when he saw people looking too much at him he did something absurd! When a number of people came from Poland to see this ‘holy’ priest, he sat down with a friend reading cartoons and laughing heartily!

He used the same unconventional methods with his penitents. To cure the arrogance of one, he told him to go around the streets of Rome carrying his cat!

To shake the resistance of a hardened criminal, he grabbed him by the collar and threw him to the ground! This move shocked so much the man that he made a full confession immediately!

He had a friend who was too serious. He obliged him to go and sing a penitential psalm (Miserere) during a wedding party! This friend eventually became a Cardinal!

Another priest gave a very beautiful sermon. Fearing that the praise that the people were lavishing on him, can puff him up, he ordered him to repeat the same sermon six times in the same Church. The word got around that this priest only knows one sermon that he prattles on and on!

A well known member of the congregation he founded, Baronius, wanted to speak regularly about hellfire and eternal punishment. Philip changed completely his orientation by insisting that he should speak about Church history. This Baronius took him so seriously that he became one of the leading Church historians of the time!

“Can I wear a hair shirt?” was the simple question one man asked Philip. “Yes, of course”, answered the priest, “but only on condition that you wear it outside your clothes!” What better way to acquire humility than to allow yourself to be humiliated!!

“Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.” This is what Philip said and this is what he believed. And so when a novice showed signs of excessive seriousness, Philip stood on his head in front of him, to make him laugh!

Mind you, he was no simpleton. As a boy from a noble family in Florence, he studied the humanities under the best scholars. Nor was he without faults. Once in irritation, he shoved his sister Caterina because she kept interrupting him and his other sister, Elisabetta, while they were reciting psalms together. One can imagine the cries and the whimpering that followed.

On another occasion, eight-year-old Philip, seeing a donkey laden with much fruit, jumped on its back. This was the straw that broke the donkey’s back. The beast bolted and both of them tumbled into a deep cellar. Providentially, he sustained no injuries but the master of the donkey was not happy when he saw all his fruit scattered all over.

When he was eighteen, he left his kinsman’s house, to set out for Rome without money or plan, trusting entirely to God’s providence. He did not tell anyone of his decision to transfer himself. Not even his father. He made a step forward in the unknown relying on nothing but his God. He wanted to start a new life.

He was tried by fierce temptations. And yet he continued. After two years living alone in intimacy with Him, he began to frequent shops, warehouses, and public places of Rome, melting the hearts of those whom he chanced to meet, and exhorting them to serve God.

Many of his disciples formed the nucleus of what afterwards became the brotherhood of the Little Oratory.

In the catacombs of Saint Sebastian, he had an experience which affected him deeply. Just a few days before Pentecost of the year 1544 there appeared what seemed to be a globe of fire that entered his mouth and afterwards he felt a dilation of the heart. Immediately he was filled with such outbursts of divine love that he fell to the ground exclaiming, “Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no more!” When he had come to himself and risen up, he discovered a swelling over his heart! Under the sudden impulse of love, his heart expanded and broke two ribs!

When he started organizing meetings at which there were prayers, hymns, readings from Scripture and from the Fathers of the Church, followed by a catechesis, he was denounced as a setter up of new sects! History has a tendency to repeat itself, no?!

Philip died in 1595 at the age of eighty years.

The simple suggestion of this saint is to add humor to our perspective if we want to be credible Christians! Laugh quickly. Laugh heartily. Laugh often. It is good for your body, mind and spirit … and it’s just plain fun! A God who still bothers about us and keeps loving us despite the idiots we are, is a truly remarkable God.

Let us aim at joy today!


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.