The Saint Who Laughed His Way To Heaven

Celebrating St. Philip Neri, the patron saint of humor

Catholic Extension
May 25, 2018 · 8 min read

By Philip C. Fenton, S.J.

The article was published in the May 1958 issue of Extension magazine.

It is the nature of the human mind to search into the essence of things and then put its searchings into a formula. Philosophers for centuries have been trying to fit the subject of humor into such a formula. Skeptics say humor is entirely subjective; agnostics say humor cannot be explained; Freudians say humor is simplicity itself. Kant put the essence of humor in the emotion born of sudden reduction to nothing of an intense expectation. Plato was wary of humor, while Aristotle accepted it as a virtue.

Just what is humor, then? Can it be defined? A man has been asked by someone whether he “sees the point” of a joke, or not. If he did, then he has a sense of humor. If he lacked comprehension, and didn’t, well . . . .

Now everything in the universe has a point, too. “Nothing in this world is to be taken seriously, nothing except the salvation of a soul.”

Bishop Sheen once said, “A divine sense of humor belongs to poets and saints because they have been richly endowed with a sense of the invisible, and can look out upon the same phenomena that other mortals take seriously and see in them something of the divine.” And so, sanctity is related to humor. That is why the saints laughed at themselves, knowing that this universe is only a stepping-off place to their eternal goal, and to take this world seriously is utter foolishness.

St. Philip Neri, the most laughable and laughed at saint in Saintdom, definitely had this type of humor. A snow-white beard, sparkling blue eyes, and a rich sense of humor made the “good Pippo” one of the brightest lights during the hectic days of the Renaissance. The City of Rome was his Apostolate, and there he made acquaintance with fifteen popes, was a lifelong friend of such saints as Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Charles Borromeo, Camillus of Lellis, and such cultural notables as Palestrina, Baronius, and Bosius.

A Freelancer in the Lord’s Vineyard

Neri first realized his vocation through contact with the sick and diseased of the Roman alleys and gutters. He visited the hospitals and brought food and gifts to the destitute patients, always joking and laughing with them to build up their morale. While wandering the streets of Rome aiding the poor, Philip met Francis Xavier, and it was probably he who introduced Philip to Ignatius, the first General of the Jesuits. Up to this time Philip considered himself a freelancer in the Lord’s vineyard. Not caring to join any of the Orders, he resolved to live and die a layman. Ignatius’ influence probably channeled the power of Philip’s vocation into a more regular life. But this was to be a gradual process, and Philip went about his “merry” way for another dozen years — and then it happened.

Neri often visited the Catacombs to pray and meditate, and it was there in the month of May or June, 1544, that he was mysteriously thrown to the floor and a ball of fire “entered his mouth and lodged in his chest.” Soon recovering from the shock, he put his hand to his left side and found a swelling as large as his fist. St. Philip Neri was definitely a mystic even before this, but at this time in his life his mystical experiences reached a climax, and left the visible mark he carried to his grave. It wasn’t like the marks given to Theresa Neumann or Padre Pio of the present day, but rather a heart so inflamed with the love of God that it forced two ribs into an arch over his heart to give the appearance of a tumor. Doctors learned this only at an autopsy on the day of his death. “There have been at least a hundred cases of stigmata, but there has never been more than one case of a heart so inflamed with the love of God as to break the ribs of the encasing body.”

Neri was now a marked man, and it was partially on account of this that for the rest of his life he engaged in ludicrous pranks, read joke books, and played the “clown” in general. His sanctity was so noticed that he had to spend most of his time trying to tear down his own reputation in people’s eyes. His joviality prevented people from discovering how holy he was, and even toned down his own sense of God so that he could get through his external religious duties. He never knew when he would be rapt into an ecstasy, and feared that it would take hold of him while in the presence of others.

A cheerful and glad spirit attains to perfection much more readily than a melancholy spirit.”-St. Philip Neri

Made Himself Ridiculous

Philip went to incredible lengths to prevent these good opinions of himself. He walked around in large white shoes; dressed in bizarre “get-ups” whenever he thought he would meet any of the Cardinals; wore all his clothes turned inside out; often wore a fur cloak through the streets of Rome to make people think he was vain; carried a pack of brooms and stopped every once in awhile and smelled them, as though they were scented flowers; shaved his beard on one side only; wore his biretta cocked sideways. He wanted to be the fool for Christ.

Later on, when Philip founded the Congregation of the Oratory, he made his confreres do the same. A certain Father was a pet victim; Philip often sent him out with purple taffeta and gold lace around his hat. One of the lay-brothers was sent into the dining hall one night during a meal carrying on his shoulders a monkey holding a gun and wearing a biretta, with a visiting Cardinal present! One of Neri’s followers asked permission to wear a hairshirt. “Sure,” was Neri’s reply, “only inside out, and over your cassock,”-a type of mortification the subject hadn’t bargained for. People never lost their respect for this saintly jester, though he tried everything imaginable to destroy their esteem. No harm was ever done by his fantasticality: it only made them venerate him all the more. He knew just how far to go.

His clowning even reached to high dignitaries. Charles Borromeo, one of the high-ranking Cardinals, often told Neri that he would grant anything he ever requested, but Neri never relied on high offices for special favors. Every time the Cardinal met Philip in a gathering, he would remind him of his promise, but Philip always refused. One time Neri thought he would have some fun. Strolling up to the Cardinal, he reminded him of his promise.

“I’d like to ask a favor of your Most Illustrious Lordship,” he said, “only I know that you will not grant it.”

“Why not?” the Cardinal asked.

“Oh, no, you won’t,” Philip insisted.

This went on for a few minutes until finally the Cardinal said, “Tell me what it is, and I will do it for you.”

Then came the joke. “Well, I would like your Most Illustrious Lordship to give me the secret of making my beard black.”

Maynard, in his book on Philip, defined humor as “a special kind of sense of proportion which is delighted rather than distressed by the inappropriateness in things. It is a form of judgment. Chesterton perceived in St. Thomas Aquinas that instantaneous presence of mind which alone deserves the name of wit. And that sort of wit-as distinguished from mere talent for making small retorts-cannot be valued enough. All the same, humor is something still higher. It is also more practical, for it is a species of common sense.” Philip’s main object in being the “clown” and playing practical jokes, though at times he must have naturally taken pleasure in doing so, was to draw men to God with jests and humor. Philip once remarked, A cheerful and glad spirit attains to perfection much more readily than a melancholy spirit.”

Refused to Become Cardinal

As a result of his constant contact with the Vatican, he repeatedly had to refuse the Cardinalate. On his first visit to the newly elected Gregory XIV, as the Holy Father embraced Philip, he snatched the red biretta which he had worn as Cardinal, put it on Philip and said, “Now We create you Cardinal.” Philip laughed it off as a big joke, but the red biretta was sent the next morning to his apartment, and Neri had to do some quick thinking. He did so, quietly, as always, and escaped the honor. Visiting the Vatican, as he so often did, was something of a trial for Neri. He always had to fight down the impulse to go up and stroke the beard of one of the Swiss Guards standing stiffly at attention. The impulse was too great. Some say he actually did this as he and the Cardinals strolled the Vatican corridors one day.

His activities in and about the environs of the city were numerous. When Pope Julius III allowed the Italian Cardinal to resume in 1533, Neri foresaw the many temptations it would present for his youths, and so planned a couter-attraction. He organized spectacular picnics for teenagers of Rome, and created a healthy atmosphere with music, song, and tons of food, as they pilgrimaged to the many Roman churches and parks. Nor did he escape criticism for his activities. Eyebrows were raised, and some of his hecklers chuckled, “how many cold chickens did Father Philip eat today?” Always abstemious, and taking just enough food to sustain himself, Neri laughed with them for he knew that to be a Fool for Christ meant also be criticized and laughed at while doing things that he knew were to be for God’s greater glory.

St. Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome, is always to be found in the pages of history during the Renaissance as adviser to saints and popes, friend of teenagers and Jews, promoter of good Catholic music, and instigator of a momentous history of the Church. As a teenager, he danced and played ball in the city streets of Rom, but today he stands with Ignatius, Xavier, Teresa of Avila, and Isidore in the City Celestial. These were the five who were declared saint of the Church in the general Canonizations ceremony in 1622.

There is only one place in sacred scripture where God is said to laugh. The Psalmist, in relating that the rulers and people of the world conspire against the Lord and His anointed, says: “He who dwells in Heaven is laughing at their threats; the Lord makes light of them” (Ps. 2:4). But God must have greeted Philip Neri at the Gates of Heaven with a hearty chuckle, for he truly was a the saint who “laughed his way to heaven.”

St. Philip Neri is the patron saint of Catholic Extension, a papal society that has been strengthening Catholic faith communities across America since 1905. Click here to learn more about the mission of Catholic Extension.

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