Monday, December 27, 2010



Philip Neri was not your "normal" ordinary Saint. Filippo in Italian or Philip in English was a cultured, loving and compassionate man. He was devoted to Music, Prayer and he was a Man of Action. He was street smart and knew the martial arts. Comparisons can be odious yet we must and should make them. Father Flanagan of Boy's Town pales when placed next to Philip. Why?

Philip challenged the world's greatest authorities. He scolded and reprimanded Popes, Kings, the Black Papal Nobility, priests and nuns who had strayed from the path of LIGHT. When times called for rough fighting Philip fought hard to help the helpless and the poor. In the midst of the magnificent Renaissance, Philip was its brightest Star because of his humility and lack of pretension.

Saint Ignatius Loyola, Founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) loved him deeply and assisted him in any way he could. Philip took in bastard children, the handicapped, the crippled children who lived in the streets, the blind,the def, the mutilated, the throw aways, adolescent thugs and criminals. Young killers,thieves, robbers, duelists, highwaymen. Children afflicted with Syphilis and Leprosy. He made no distinction. " They are all God's children. They are the Children of Life."

Philip could read minds. That stunned the ruling classes because he dared to tell them what was on their minds. The Renaissance was a time of artistic and intellectual brilliance. Many geniuses trod the Italian earth with their golden handmade shoes. But licentiousness also bounded. Impunity was a divine right of the rich and the mighty. Philip railed against such abuses.

Rome was a city of fifty thousand people including all those who comprised the Papal Court and the administrative and artistic running of the city. Fifteen thousand prostitutes and courtesans flourished in Rome. The Pope was the Vicar of Christ, The Head of State and the Ruler/King. He had the power of instant death over any citizen. He also tolerated when he did not himself participate in all the carnal vices known to man and beast.

Philip was always tempted. He never saw what we think demons should look like. They came to him as
Blacksmiths, beautiful flower sellers, herbalists, knights and even children afflicted with tuberculosis. During the Renaissance, tuberculosis, malaria from the many marshes and swamps in Rome and the BlackDeath came to call on Rome. Philip was in the midst o fall these horrors, looking after the sick,the dying and reciting the rituals for the dead.

Through his constant pleas, the Pope at last gave him a deconsecrated church so that he could house his growing community of the "CHILDREN OF LIFE."

His children all helped in the cleaning and re-painting. the ceilings were thirty feet high, so Philip and some engineers built sturdy stairs so that those floors could serve as bedrooms and music rooms.

It was very much in vogue at the time to sing lewd and obscene songs. Every child dwelling on the street or in a Palazzo knew them. Philip asked his children to compose new music and/or substitute new lyrics that did not speak of tortures, murders, rapes and sodomy.

"I shall call them Oratorios," said he.

George Handel, German composer and spy would take the Oratorios to great heights in his Messiah performed in London.

What follows is one of the chapters of my book on Saint Philip Neri called "THE PIED PIPER OF ROME."

Rome was sacked by His most Catholic Imperial Majesty Charles the Fifth von Hapsburg of Spain. Rome had been attacked and pillaged many times before, throughout the ages.What created this almost unbearable anguish was the fact that a Catholic Emperor had ordered it.

"No mercy is to be shown to the Pope, the College of Cardinals or to the people of Rome," he ordered.

To render the attack more effective and fearsome,  he hired Lutheran, Anglican, Greek Orthodox and Evangelical mercenaries - the infamous Landsknecht. Few Roman Catholics participated.

It took Rome centuries to recover from this horrifying attacks and plunder which lasted 90 days without a pause.In my opinion, the psychological scars of this Sack of Rome has been imprinted into the DNA of every Roman and probably every Italian.


from the book by Isabella Vacani Van Fechtmann


Day One:

“Listen! Let there be no sound from any of us.” Brother Philip Neri admonished the boys and girls ranging from 7 to 18 years of age, who were gathered around him in the catacombs of Lucilla.

In the distance and approaching closer by the second was the whirlwind rumble of galloping horses and mad soldiers.

Little Viviana covered her ears with her grimy hands and opened her blind eyes wide in horror.

“They are yelling, yelling, yelling.” she whispered even as her whole body quivered.

Verde, who was holding her in her arms, whispered back, “what are they yelling?”

Philip Neri turned to look at Efren, the fine 18 year old.  “Jesus would surely have chosen Efren as one of his Apostles.” 

Efren was crouching across Philip. He knew Philip could hear what these murderously savage devils were yelling and shouting about, over and over, like chants in hell.

Verde whom Efren loved with his whole being, and whom he knew returned his love in equal measure, if not more.

“Efren, I know Verde loves you. Tell her how you feel about her. You and she are part of God’s plan,” Brother Philip had urged.

Efren had paid attention, because there was no one like the Brother in Rome. He was loving, funny, incorruptible, and brave, He loved God and he showed it in a thousand ways every day, by loving them.

Once upon a devil’s life they had been thieves, thugs, peddlers of opium and hashish, sellers of girls and boys, some had hurt people, though none of them had killed them intentionally. Philip seemed to know not only what they were thinking, he knew what they were going to do. He could see into their souls.

“And not only ours. He saw through the Pope, the Cardinals, and the high and mighty papal families, who were the most corrupt, greedy and savage of all.

“To listen to Philip is to listen to God,” reasoned Efren, as the thunderous roar of horses, brutes riding them and crazed animals hauling cannon, came closer.

Brother Philip gathered the youngest children around him and enfolded all of them into his well-muscled arms. Efren followed his example as did Verde, for the two of them were the eldest in the growing group of “The Children of Life.”

Then he began to hum and croon, Philip had a beautiful voice.  When he opened his mouth in music, all creatures great and small were mesmerized.

“Introibo ad altare Dei” – I will go into the altar of God.” Ad Deum quilatificat juventutem meam,” To God, who is the joy of my Youth.

“None of us know Latin, yet we can hear every word Philip is humming in our Roman or gutter dialect. How can this be? Jesus is our Joy,” Efren chanted softly into the circle of small children and adolescents around him.

“We are singing in Latin, we understand what we are singing. What has Brother Philip done?” Verde asked quietly.

The catacombs of Lucille were dank, malodorous, and toxic. In ancient Rome, the proletariat those without means, who were endowed only with “prole” children, were given the Catacombs to deposit their dead. Land was valuable, only the rich, members of the old Etruscan families, members of the Senate and merchants could afford to pay for expensive burial plots. Detailed maps of the catacombs or luculli were kept by the authorities - to avoid the members of the deceased family from dying from breathing the deadly gases emanating from the dead.

            Lucilla was a young Christian daughter of a centurion. She held gatherings for the catechumens, as the early Christians were called. The catacombs had been in disuse  – the loculli, or spaces had been filled by the dead centuries ago.  Tomb raiders and robbers had long since dispensed of the skeletons. Bone brought in money. Combs, handles for swords, daggers, knives, amulets, necklaces, goblets plates, writing boxes for monks, rosaries, prayer beads: its uses were only limited to the merchant’s imagination. Where there was profit to be made, that was endless.

The children were coughing. Efren and Verde exchanged caring glances and mouthed, “I love you,” and tried not to cough.

            Philip said loudly, “I love you all.”

They sensed it. Because the tumult approaching them above the ground was so terrifyingly loud they could not have heard their own screams.

            Philip had chosen several spots in the catacombs close to the openings in the ground to minimize the danger of breathing poisonous air.

“Pluderung! Plunderung!  Plunderung’

Plunder! Plunder! Plunder! Chanted the thousands of savages trampling everything in their path over them.

“Abbruch! Abbruch! Abbruch!

Kill! Kill! Kill!

“Sack! Sack! Sack!”

Then, a fearsome beast whose voice overpowered the evil chants yelled, “Raub!  Raub! Raub!

Rape!  Rape! Rape!

More thousands joined the cries. This unseen creature, “The Satanic One,” Philip said softly, led them.

“Plunderung!” Followed by cheers.

“Abbruch!”  More cheers.

“Sack!  ‘Hoots and howls.

“Raub” The tens of thousands went wild.

Efren understood German. He was born in Mainz. His father had been killed in a tavern brawl and his mother, thinking she was doing the right thing, had apprenticed him to Meister Heinz, a prosperous merchant who bought and sold goods from the Near East.

“How was my poor mother to know most of the Meister’s goods were human beings?”

Following a dream he had on a ship in Ostia, a port near Rome, Efren escaped from the slave ship and made his way to the city of Rome itself. Philip Neri had appeared to him in the dream “Efren, be not afraid. I am Philip Neri. Come to Rome and greet Jesus. He and I will find you.”

“Those devil/soldiers will have to kill me first before they lay a hand on Verde who is a virgin in thought, word and deed, and on Philip, who is a living saint Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.” He prayed.

“Philip Neri implored God on his knees, carrying Delfina, who was stricken with leprosy.

“De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, Jesus, exaudi vocem meam,” Up from the depths I have cried to Thee, Lord, Jesus, hear my voice.

            All the others were on their knees, hands clasped in prayer. Some did not know how, to make the sign of the cross. “Never mind, Jesus. You know what is in their hearts,” he said silently.

The hordes kept thundering above them. Philip’s eyes flooded with tears. “ Rome is fallen, that great city.”

Efren spoke into Verde’s ear, ”Pass this on: Lord Jesus, hear our voices.”

He was shocked to see as the heads turned to repeat the prayer that he did not know most of the boys, girls, young men and women who were kneeling in the catacombs with them. “Let’s see. Our group is made up of Verde, there she is, Viviana is in her arms, and Brother Philip has Delfina. We have Fausto, Graziano, Bassano, Diego, Barbara, Marcella, Maria, Mattia, Tancredi, and I.”

            Let me see if I remember Verde’s lesson on how to count. ”Thanks to her, Efren was no longer illiterate.

“Oh! This can’t be. There are fifty young people down here.” He counted the heads again. “That’s correct. How are we going to survive without food and water? We have barely enough for our band How did this happen?”

Efren walked on his knees to get Brother Philip’s attention. The din continued above them. ”Plunderung! Sack! Abbruch! Raub!” 

Philip embraced him with his left arm. He was burning with swamp fever (malaria). It was an affliction, which he had caught in the Roman marshes, searching for lost and sick children.

Efren felt lost. “What shall we do if our Brother dies. Lord! Please don’t take him away. We are not good people yet.”

Philip smiled and stroked his white cheek. “Efren. I know. Jesus has sent us many children. More will come. Don’t think about my fever. Don’t tell anyone, except Verde. God tries no one too far.”

“Just tell me Brother, how are we going to feed all these mouths?”

“And souls, Efren, souls, we will find a way. I’ll cogitate something, or Jesus will.”

He handed Delfina to him. Efren hesitated. He muttered into his ear, ”you have more to fear from your doubts and your passions than from this little child’s leprosy.”

He took the child from Philip ruffled her hair and knelt beside Verde. “Pax vobis. Peace be with you, my dearest, purest love. I believe. Above all, I believe.”

“We are members one of another,” Verde reminded him.

Philip, still on his knees, walked towards the young people. In silence, he blessed each one on the forehead with the sign of the Cross, “In nomine Patri, figlio et Spiritu Sanctus.” In the name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen”

Everyone he touched felt a deep calm. They became deaf to the cries above and increasingly, the screams of their victims.  They had no one, except Philip and through him, Jesus. The dreams had told them. They had listened. They had come. They were saved - even if death came.

Philip Neri was not an ordinary man. He lived a priestly life, yet he was not a priest. He was a lay man. He had taken the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, unbidden and unasked by earthly beings. Jesus wanted him and he had given him his life: heart and soul. He came from a wealthy Florentine merchant family. He used his inheritance to support the poor, destitute, desperate, sick and dying children. His straight talk in a Rome, where intrigue was suckled at a mother’s breast; where deceit and duplicity were arts to be cultivated: where betrayal a normal consequence of quotidian life; where murder and assassination of one’s rivals was to be carried out swiftly and successfully – jarred the black aristocracy, also known as the papal aristocracy. Failure took no prisoners. Ridicule, among one’s peers, could sometimes be worse than a quick stab at one’s jugular vein or carotid artery.

In the beginning, it was a mystery to Philip why he was not a victim of a murder by poisoning or an assassination by men who wielded daggers with more skill than they wielded their penises. How many times had he stopped men by the Tiber, ” My dear men. Do you need help? Are you lost?  May I be of assistance?”

Philip was sociable to a fault. He liked people, and he captivated most of them. Sometimes, at a prelate’s banquet, he might say “Please forgive my churlishness, Monsignor, I can tell by the smell that the wine has gone bad. More’s the pity since it comes from your finest vineyards.”

The deadly poisons had no smell and no taste. It was God’s way of protecting Philip.

”This Neri lives on the streets. He befriends young cutthroats, highwaymen, whores, thieves, children infected with leprosy, syphilis and consumption (tuberculosis). We have no idea what he says to them, no sermons, of that we are sure, but it’s a fact that most are touched by him. Their lives, bit by bit, begin to change,” His Eminence, Francesco Cardinal Del Monte had observed to members of his family.

“These young people are our bastards and our throwaways. Even their mothers concur, after certain gold ducats were exchanged. What right does Neri have to come into the streets and alleys and turn them into good thinking people,” protested His Eminence, Pompeo, Cardinal Colonna. He did not hide his distaste before His Holiness Pope Clement Vll, the Medici Pope.

“Neri is one of God’s loved creatures. Even the stones in the palaces and in the quarries know this,” he replied quietly to Cardinal Colonna.

            If I had just a bit of the Lord’s grace upon me as Neri seems to have, I would not be the vacillating, Pope that I am.  Today, I side with the Emperor Charles of the Hapsburgs; tomorrow, with the King of France, Francis the first of Savoy,” he thought in the deepest recesses of his heart.

Clement Vll had sought out Philip Neri, one dark solitary and windy night in late March They were entirely alone in his sumptuously decorated Palace of Palaces - The Quirinale.

“Please, beloved Brother Neri, do not mince words, I ask of you. I am at the end of my tether.”

“Your Holiness, The warring papal factions are for the moment against your family, the Florentine Medici. The Armies Of Emperor Charles Hapsburg, now ravaging Northern Italy have not been paid, in over a year.  There are Christians who obey Rome and Christians who believe in Luther.  Both of these Christians are part of the same army. At the moment, satanic forces possess them. Before their eyes are the treasures of Rome. Undefended. Just for the taking.   Nothing can placate them. They will march into Rome and take everything they can carry.  What they cannot drag or carry, they will burn and destroy. Rome is the prize. It has ever been thus,” Philip Neri told the Pope bluntly.

“Is Rome doomed then?”

“I fear so, Your Holiness. Please leave for Castel Sant’Angelo immediately with your 6,000 strong Swiss Guards. Each one of these dedicated warriors and pious men, fight like five men. You need them alive and strong, inside the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, not hacked to pieces by the Landsknechts, as you desperately attempt to flee when the troops enter Rome.”

His Holiness sighed. It was a sigh full of sadness. “Then we must resign ourselves to the worst that humans wreak on other humans.”

Tranquility came like an invisible cloud over the youth who moments before had been cowering and praying nervously inside the Catacombs of Lucilla.

Philip approached Efren and Verde, “we will soon be in desperate need of water.”

Efren replied quickly ”Within a matter of hours, the Tiber will be clogged with corpses. The waters will be contaminated.”

“So, we must ensure that our water for drinking, cooking and washing comes from the aqueduct near the Circus Maximus, or an artesian well may well have been used by the early Christians. Lucilla must have had access to water.” Verde declared, her large emerald eyes flashed at the thought. That also explained why her name was Verde – green.

“What are your ideas Verde?” inquired Efren, trying not to look too concerned.

“I would like to take Viviana with me. It’s true she’s blind. When Jesus restored sight to the blind, do we know what was meant by sight? Suppose he gave them the power to see even if they remained blind?

“What do you mean Verde? That perhaps Jesus gave the blind an acute sense of hearing?  They could see the people, mountains, hills, rivers, and animals, inside their heads. Their Inner voices were their spirit guides. How about Angels? In those days, the earliest Christians seemed closer to God, to Nature and to their spiritual feelings. Angels had an easier time piercing through the walls we had built around us. Our guardian angels must be here somewhere close by. Let’s try to feel them.“

             Efren’s observations impressed Philip. He knew Verde was proud of him as well.

For a few seconds no one spoke, then Philip said to Efren and Verde,

“Put on the whole armor of God. Viviana is well armed. She has the gift of detecting sounds, which are not audible to our ears. She’ll lead you to the well or to a spring, or even a fountain.  Go with God.”

He embraced Verde and Efren and gave Viviana a warm hug. ”I know where to look. A voice is telling me. I will hear the sound of water running or flowing, especially if it is inside the earth.”

Viviana could be very articulate when she was describing sounds. 

Concerned that they could easily get lost in the mazes and labyrinths of the catacombs, Philip reassured them. He placed his rosary into Efren’s calloused hands. “Recite the Pater Noster, The Lord’s Prayer and the Ave Maria, the Hail Mary. If you think you are lost, remain calm. Talk to your guardian angel. You will receive a sign. Believe in Jesus, in Viviana and in yourselves.”

“Remember we trust you completely Philip. You brought me closer to Jesus, and rescued Verde from the clutches of an ambitious mother who wanted to turn her into a courtesan, like her, and gift her lover the Cardinal de Barbieri, with her young virginal daughter, Verde.”

He blessed them. Made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, their necks, and their hands and on the top of their heads. “I will go into the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth.”

The three of them penetrated deep into the catacombs. The fissure of light grew dimmer and vanished completely. Verde, with frail Viviana nestling in her arms, led the way, Efren followed close behind. He recited the rosary. He felt that he could keep count of their steps by the number of Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s. The well could not have been far from Lucilla’s meeting place, which is supposed to be the area where Philip and all the young people were gathered.

“We have done nothing but turn this way and that. There must be rats here. How I wish I cold speak to them,” said Efren.

“Indeed. Rats are smart. They prefer to live in places where water is easily accessible,” replied Verde.

             Viviana became inquisitive. She took Verde’s hand and placed it on her right ear” Right. Right,” she whispered.

”Efren! “She’s heard something. She’s telling me that we should turn right.”

Several flaming round red lights hurriedly scurried by their feet. A good sign.

“I just saw several rats. Perhaps they were telling us something, Verde.”

“The child is becoming very agitated. She can hear something. I hope it’s the sound of water. I hear nothing and smell nothing. What about you?”

“Not yet” he replied. He was glad to be, for a few minutes, in silence and in darkness. They were closer to the bowels of the earth than they thought.

Why was there no damp or moist smell of the earth when it is constantly bathed in water, Efren asked himself?

Viviana almost jumped out of Verde’s arms.

“Water!” she declared. Triumphantly.

There it was! Flowing in all of God’s glory, a fountain, which spurted from the earth. It was high enough to keep the rats from reaching it, but plentiful so that it formed rivulets into the next catacomb and the next. That made the rats content.

Efren and Verde knelt down and prayed.   “Thank you, Jesus for bringing Viviana, the water finder into our lives. Thank you rats for your kindness (they could have attacked us, there were hundreds of them).”

They both ran their fingers through the cool water, Verde cupped her hands to splash a little of it into Viviana’s cheek.

Viviana tugged at Verde’s long almond colored hair.” What is it?”

“L- l - look around,” she said breathlessly.

There were dozens of Roman amphorae surrounding them. Large ones which needed two men to carry - many small vessels for children,

“These ones with the symbol of the fish, used by the early Christian evangelicals and their followers, will be perfect for us women.”

She gazed at Efren intensely, as if trying to fathom his innermost feelings.

“Did you believe we would find water in such a strange place? I had doubts, but I banished them from my mind after Brother Philip was certain. I think Jesus loves him more than the Pope. And most of his Cardinals.”

He did not want to admit that he had been afraid – of losing their way, of failing in their mission, and disappointing their Philip, but he did not want to tell her a blatant lie. “I still have many fears. They don’t linger, because like you, I think Jesus has a special fondness for Philip.”

Viviana was fondling a small amphora. “Ajh! The little ones are showing us,“ cried out Verde. “We should not go back empty handed. Let’s each carry an amphora back.“

Philip was still on his knees. Lost in prayer and contemplation. Graziano cried out” Our Brother. Come back to us. I hear heavy footfalls. It must be Efren, Verde and Viviana. 

He espied them carrying the amphorae. “Urra! Urra!”

Philip clapped his hands with joy, but remained kneeling.  “Thank you” he muttered. Everyone knew he always thanked Jesus.

The tumult had somewhat subsided above them. The new arrivals, which comprised the majority, turned to Philip.

“I am looking for Philip Neri. You look like the one I saw in a dream. My name is Antonio.”

“I am he; he mumbled almost shyly.” Call me Brother of simply Philip.”

“We all saw you in our dreams.”

“You told us to seek you out and we listened.“

Despite the horror going on around them, Philip clucked merrily. ”I never tell anybody what to do. I always ask them. I usually expect they’ll turn me down. I am surprised and glad when most of them don’t.”

“What is taking place in Rome?”

“Rome is being sacked, plundered and pillaged.”

Gasps and moans were heard, “

“Its men, women, and children, even as I speak, raped and slaughtered.”

“Oh no! Not our loved ones.”

Most of Philip Neri’s Children of Life had been abused, neglected beaten, tormented maimed, and tortured by their parents. The good-looking ones had sometimes been sold to bordellos catering to pederasts.  Yet in this hour of horror, they found it in their hearts to weep and mourn for their wretched parents. They voiced concern for their siblings.

“Our little brothers and sisters are innocent. Why do they have to die?”

            Philip continued telling them what was being enacted by satanic forces or men blinded by Luciferian lust and greed above their catacombs.

              “Priests and nuns, abused, tortured and cut to pieces. Churches and cathedrals are being stripped of everything the soldiers think might be valuable and then they are burning them to the ground. They are looting palaces, villas, and even the humblest abodes.  Warehouses, storehouses, shops are all  torn bare of supplies. Taverns will be spared if the owners allow the soldiers to drink everything in sight, without paying, for they have no money.”

Philip let them wail, sob, moan, scream their grief.

“How long has it been since these children cried? He thought feeling tears flooding his face and fighting to keep his voice from cracking. 

His own group of twelve led by Efren and Verde, entwined their arms around him, crying as if their tears would never end.

             “Adauge dolorem, sed adauge patientam increase,” he often asked God. Increase my pain, but increase my patience.

“O Mio Dio, Filippo. Oh My God. I am thinking of my poor Mamma. I hope she does not suffer. I pray that she will be spared and that the sinister Cardinal Del Monte will not suffer a horrific fate. You taught us not to be vindictive. We try to follow your example. You are the most forgetful and forgiving of offenses against your person. It’s hard to be like you.” Verde sobbed loudly into Philip’s shoulder.

            He stroked her hair and let her outpouring continue.

He turned to study Efren, his favorite. Just as Jesus loved John the Apostle, his cousin, so Philip loved Efren, his disciple, whom he hoped would carry on his work someday. There were so many imponderables. God was being very mysterious regarding Efren, and Verde. His patience was being tested, Philip had the gift of making predictions which he kept to himself, although he had revealed his fears to Pope Clement V11, about the imminent attack on Rome led by troops of His Most Imperial Catholic Majesty Charles the V, the Hapsburg Emperor. 

“Brother, I have ten dried boar sausages and a big loaf of bread in my satchel. Why don’t we distribute it among the youngest children? I am beginning to understand what you’re always reminding us, that God tries no one too far.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, worthy of you Efren.“

He turned beet red. “We may just make it through this first night of Terror. I’m sure the other young people who have joined us, came prepared. I recognized some as excellent thieves - back in the days when I partook of that kind of life, if that can indeed be called a life.”

Verde told them, “I too, have a satchel full of farro (wheat) cakes and patties. Clean water is plentiful. We are blessed. God is Good.“

“I am leaving the organizational matters in your exceptionally capable hands, Efren. I must leave you all for a little while and walk to the next catacomb. I need to talk with God. Alone. I must let nothing disturb me.    

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