St. Philip Neri: The Saint who Loved Cats

St. Philip Neri. (Wikimedia Commons)
The sixteenth-century Italian Catholic saint St. Philip Neri was a man who spent his life serving God, and made a lasting impact on the Church. Also, St. Philip Neri was famous for another love: His love of cats.

During his lifetime, St. Philip Neri gained a reputation for being a very jovial but devout man. He made no secret that joke books were his favorite books along with the Bible! Some of his famous prayers and quotes were humorous in nature, but contained pearls of wisdom and inspiration. However, he was also a man who dedicated his life to God. He started his charity work when he was 18 years old and when he was 37, he was finally ordained a priest. He built an oratory in Rome over the church of San Girolamo (and inadvertently helped create the Oratorio in the process), served the young men of Rome and beyond, and organized charity work throughout the city.

In his older years, he could often be seen around Rome with his cat, who was the subject of (and named "Jeoffry" in) Christopher Smart's famous 18th century poem about St. Philip Neri. According to the 1894 biography of St. Philip Neri by Alphonso Capecelatro, the cat was a female cat who lived with St. Philip Neri in his cell at St. Girolamo.

In 1583, St. Philip Neri was asked to relocate to the monastery at Vallicella by the Pope, although he would remain in the government of the Oratory at St. Girolamo until his death. Upon leaving St. Girolamo, he left his cat in his cell as an example of self-mortification to his disciples. He made the disciples feed her and even made penitents carry her around Rome as penance for their sins! His love for his cat never faded away, despite being in increasingly bad health and advancing old age. He always asked his disciples for the latest news about her and made sure she was well-taken care of in his absence. Not only did he ask these questions as a way of finding out the latest information about her, but also as a way to break down pride and vanity in the monks who served at the oratory!

St. Philip Neri died in 1595 and was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. His cat lived for some six years after his departure from St. Girolamo. During her lifetime she became one of Rome's most famous cats, and St. Philip Neri has had the distinct reputation of being one of the few saints who loved and kept cats up to this very day!

For more about St. Philip Neri, please visit:
- (A bio of St. Philip Neri.)
- (A 1929 article from All Blackfriar's magazine about Catholic saints and their relationship with animals. Includes a section on St. Philip Neri and his cat.)
- (A poem by the 18th century English poet and alleged "madman" Christopher Smart about "Jeoffry".)
- (Section from Woodeene Koenig-Bricker's 2001 book Praying With the Saints: Making Their Prayers Your Own about St. Philip Neri.)

Cats of the Roman Legions

An ancient Roman cat mosaic in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. (Massimo Finizio/Wikimedia Commmons)
Throughout history, cats have been a mascot for everything from sports teams to railroad lines, and a faithful companion and guardian for we humans. It's no wonder then that cats played a crucial role in the Roman army!

Throughout the territories of the Roman empire, cats were brought to military installations and naval bases by units of the Roman army and navy. These cats served an important purpose to the Empire: To keep mice and especially black rats out of the grain and supply stores of the Roman military units across the Empire. Black rats were a major problem throughout the Roman empire and they had the capacity to inflict heavy damage on food and equipment. Rats can gnaw through leather and wood, which is what a good deal of Roman military equipment was made from. Also, black rats and other rodents had the ability to spread disease among the Legionnaires and their horses, which could easily have caused a deadly epidemic at the time. In order to keep the rat population under control, the Roman commanders recruited the world's most efficient mouse and rat hunter: The cat!

One cat has the ability to catch hundreds of rats a year, which would instantly safeguard many hundreds of tons of grain and equipment in Roman stores and ships per year!

Cats also served another function in the Roman military: As mascots and pets for various army units and ships. A number of Roman army units were reported to have used cats of different colors on their banners, although no pictoral evidence to prove this and the cats could've been other much bigger feline species such as lions or jaguars. However, it is recorded in ancient Roman histories that a unit (or 'century') of the sixth cohort of the Praetorian Guard were known as Catti, or "The Cats" in English!

Most importantly of all, there is plenty of evidence that the Roman Legionnaires and sailors loved the cats that stayed by their side in those faraway lands. At the sites of some of the old Roman military installations, mummified cats and other artifacts such as mosaics (see above) and soldiers' insciptions of cats have been found. These mummified cats were given very elaborate burials and were sometimes buried in coffins in addition to being wrapped. This suggests that cats were adored by their masters and considered sacred by the Romans and by many in the lands they ruled, such as the Egyptians. Also, many Legionnaires had the word Cattus, or "cat" inserted into their names. In this case, cattus most likely meant "to be sharp-witted", but we all know which animal is one of the most wily, cunning, and sharp-witted of all!

To those men who served Rome in some faraway remote outpost or on a ship in a foreign sea, life could be very lonely and the dangers great. The cats who lived at these installations performed the two duties they continue to perform to this very day for anyone who owns a cat: They gave these Legionnaires and soldiers unconditional love and companionship, and protected them from disease and hunger. All evidence shows that these men were forever grateful to Catti for all they did for them.

-Campbell, Brian. The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. New York City: Oxford University Press USA, 2013, pgs. 366-368.
-Engels, Donald W. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. London; Routledge Publishing, 1999, pg. 202.

See also:
- (An excellent series of blog posts from The Great Cat about the cats of ancient Rome.)