September 19, 2023 // Perspective

The Joyful Heart of St. Philip

This past summer, I had the joy of participating in a conference for Church communications professionals from around the world, hosted by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. My hotel was located on a small side street in the heart of the city, just behind the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. This particular church, commonly known as “Chiesa Nuova,” or “new church,” was built in the 1570s by St. Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians religious order.

St. Philip’s body is buried in a chapel of the Chiesa Nuova, and one day after Mass, I took a moment to kneel in prayer to ask for his intercession. I soon realized that I knew very little about the man other than that he had founded a religious order that continues to flourish,
and that he had built this church, which even after 450 years, continues to be known as “the new church.” And my friends, I soon learned that St. Philip Neri was a model of joyful holiness for every Christian to emulate, no matter your state in life: layperson, religious, even cardinal or pope!

Philip was born in 1515 in central Italy, and after a brief stint working in the family business, he experienced a religious conversion and moved to Rome, where he devoted his labors to caring for the sick and poor of the city. He was renowned for his habit of enthusiastically engaging every person he met in conversation
as he walked the streets of Rome, sharing the love of God and the joyful hope that he found in his Catholic faith. He became one of the most well-known people in the city, was popularly hailed as “the Apostle of Rome,” and for 17 years continued his ministry as a layman, inspiring young men of the city to join him in his service to the poor.

In 1848, with his confessor, he organized these men into a confraternity to minister to the thousands of pilgrims who came to the Eternal City, as well as to accompany the sick who languished in hospitals and recovery rooms. The confraternity quickly grew, and within a few years, it bore the character of a religious community. The 36-year-old Philip, as leader of the confraternity, was ordained a priest. Eventually, he formally established the order known today as the Oratorians, named for the social hall in which they would host weeknight prayer meetings featuring hymns, readings from Sacred Scripture, preaching, and musical interludes. These compositions gave rise to the form of music known as “oratorio,” of which Handel’s “Messiah” is perhaps the most well-known.

As a result of his years as a lay street evangelist, Father Philip knew how to engage the people of his day in an authentic way. He was learned in books but also acquainted with the affairs of the day, and this enabled him to be genuinely interested in each person he met. He had a real gift of being able to read hearts, which made him a popular confessor
and spiritual director. His sense of humor was legendary, including being able to laugh at himself. He wasn’t above playing harmless pranks, especially if they might inspire conversion of heart. Knowing that one of his brothers struggled with vanity, Father Philip directed that the brother should wear a ridiculous hat with purple and gold streamers every time he went out to minister on the streets of Rome. The ridicule that the silly hat invited helped the brother embrace the virtue of humility, furthering his formation as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Deeply in love with Christ and His Church, Father Philip envisioned new ways to share the joy and hope he knew as a Catholic. He introduced the 40 Hours devotion, the forerunner of today’s Eucharistic adoration, and instituted the tradition of visiting seven particular pilgrim churches in Rome, which quickly became and remain beloved practices to nourish the faith of millions of Catholics. One might even say that we American Catholics can thank St. Philip Neri for inspiring the Eucharistic Revival and national pilgrimage that culminates in Indianapolis next summer with our Eucharistic Lord.

Father Philip served his brother Oratorians as their leader until his death on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1595. He was canonized just 25 years later at the same time as St. Teresa of Avila (foundress of the Discalced Carmelites), St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), St. Francis Xavier (patron of missionaries), and St. Isidore the Farmer. All were from Spain, and the Romans, perhaps overly proud of their own son, St. Philip Neri, claimed that the pope that day had “canonized one saint and four Spaniards.” No doubt the joyful hearted St. Philip would’ve appreciated the joke.

Thinking about the life and ministry of St. Philip, I am inspired by his manner of genuine engagement with everyone he met, his deep personal devotion to the Lord Jesus that overflowed into practicing charity toward the poor and the sick, and his joyful heart, which brought happiness to so many during his lifetime and continues to do so today. The order he established also continues to inspire holiness, giving us St. John Henry Newman and St. Francis de Sales, among others. May their numbers ever increase!

St. Philip Neri, pray for us!

Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend. For more, visit

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.