St Philip Neri (1515-1595) has rightly been regarded as an apostle of joy, and was something of a practical joker which in many ways was a hallmark and imprint of his spirituality and character. He was keen to encourage friendly banter in the early days of The Oratory. His friend Baronius, a future cardinal, was on the receiving end of many of his jokes, such as sending Baronius to wine shops to sample all the wines before deciding to tell him just to buy half a bottle!
This free and easy attitude was evident in his early life. Born 21 July 1515 in Florence, Italy, he never lost his Florentine spirit which was within him, and this served him well for his apostolate in Rome. His carefree persona is all the more remarkable considering the amount of unrest in the era he lived in – particularly the Reformation, which swept its doctrines throughout Europe in the 16th century.
Rome itself was the scene of considerable conflict and was sacked in the early 16th century. The Reformation was permeating the masses throughout western Europe, which meant the primacy of the papacy was being attacked on unprecedented levels. The need for reform was in the air, and the intense apostolate of St Philip provided an answer for the needs of the time.
And Rome itself was a shadow of its former self. Only a century before, the Great Schism (1387-1415) had resulted in the papacy moving from her base in Rome to the French courts of Avignon, leaving the papal states in continual conflict and erosion. In attempts to re-build Rome’s Lateran Palace and the papacy’s immersion in Italian politics, the papacy was on her knees financially. Furthermore there was a spiritual malaise to the age which also impacted Rome. Pagan influence was very high at the time, with Renaissance thought and growth in Epicureanism, leaving the great city a long way from being the centre of the Catholic world.
St Philip left his native city and ended up in Rome in 1535. And it was in this formative period, up until when he was ordained a priest in May 1551, which revealed a man with a keen thirst for the Church and a very free spirit, who roamed the streets for sixteen years. One of the striking things about this formative period, was St Philip’s night-life.
His carefree persona is all the more remarkable considering the amount of unrest in the era he lived inFormally he lived under the roof of another Florentine, Galeotto Caccia, who hired St Philip to educate his two sons, Michele and Ippolito. But rather than resting, St Philip preferred to spend his night-time leisure exploring the ancient catacombs of Rome. It reveals an intense prayer life – St Philip believed not only in the archaeological value of the catacombs but saw in them a channel of proximity with the ancient Church and the values held at that time. He felt the history and allowed it to permeate his soul, by holding long night vigils there, and would commonly go into ecstasy.
Another place he was keen to go at night was a deserted basilica- the Basilica of San Sebastiano – which was on the outskirts of Rome, and was afforded adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. These intense moments of prayer culminated in 1544, St Philip having a vision of a ball of fire entering his mouth and setting his heart on fire. Like many mystics, this union of fire, took on a real physical appearance, and must have been an intense experience, even for a man who commonly went into ecstasy.
But St Philip did not live a hermit’s life. During the day he spent his time wandering the streets of Rome, talking and interacting with groups of young men. Indeed young men were to be a keen focus for him throughout his life in Rome, as he began to seek in them those with potential for having a vocation, or to have a more sacramental life than what was typical at that time. He also liked to explore the shops of Rome, and became an easily recognizable face on the streets, although one of St Philip’s maxims was ‘love to be unknown.’
It was in these formative years that informal gatherings began to be held, which was to form the basis for what later became The Oratory. St Philip formed close bonds with those he met with, particularly Persiano Rosa who became his confessor and spiritual director, with both exchanging views after Mass on the spiritual life in Philip’s upper room. It was in these meetings that began suggestions for St Philip to become a priest, which he duly did in May 1551.
St Philip had haughty plans initially of evangelising the infidel in Jerusalem, but it became clear that there was a greater demand for him to help reform Rome. Those who met up with him at San Girolamo, Rome, could have a variety of tasks to perform, such as visiting the squalid hospitals of Rome.
But the meetings did become more serious, particularly once St Philip was made a priest, although practical jokes on Baronius were still commonplace. St Philip immersed himself in the traditional priestly functions of hearing confessions and celebrating Mass. Something of his night-time spirit must have still permeated his being in his priestly years as he commonly said the last Mass of the day. But it was his working knowledge of Church history which influenced his ministry, particularly the writings of Cassian, as St Philip encouraged priest and laity alike to have frequent reception of the Blessed Sacrament and also to go to confession regularly. This reform and renewal of sacramental life was prevalent at the time, with St Ignatius similarly encouraging frequent Communion and Confession in the spirituality of the Jesuits.
Indeed St Philip always understood the importance of Church history, and how a working knowledge of history could help change and influence the work of contemporary believers. Such was the importance that St Philip commissioned Baronius to write a comprehensive volume of Church history. This was to become known as the ‘Annals’. St Philip was in the habit, of when receiving drafts of Baronius’ work, chucking them away flippantly over his shoulder, and ordering the hapless Baronius to go to Mass.
Proof of how seriously St Philip took Church history can be found in the content of the meetings held by The Oratorians. There was always an extract quoted from Church history which was then discussed in the group. Along with this, the meetings held would look at the life of a given saint, an extract from mystical writings, and an extract from Scripture. All of these were then discussed and debated by the group. Such a structure was revolutionary for its time, particularly as the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was still in its embryonic stages in relation to an educated clergy.
These intense moments of prayer culminated in 1544, St Philip having a vision of a ball of fire entering his mouth and setting his heart on fireAnd as his ministry matured, The Oratory as we know it today was formed. It must not be taken for granted just how revolutionary the founding of The Oratory was. St Philip was keen to emphasise and implement the fact that there was no formal Rule for the Oratorians, and really their ministry lay in their informal meetings. For St Philip he saw the meetings as a process of conversion for those who came to him. For example there was a certain gentleman called Tarugi who came to St Philip’s meetings, and also went to confession. He was having a sinful relationship with a woman at the time, but it was never St Philip’s tactic to condemn anyone and was willing to be patient with penitents. He encouraged this in all Oratorians, and in that particular case served him well as Tarugi’s relationship ended and he ended up becoming a cardinal.
This growth in maturity resulted in St Philip being consulted by a series of popes, who recognised the wisdom of St Philip. In 1563 Pope Pius IV moved St Philip’s Oratorians to San Benedetto in Arenula. And Pope Clement VIII and Pope Gregory IX both consulted St Philip on the complex issue of international diplomacy, which was so fraught in the post-Reformation era. This lead to St Philip advising Pope Gregory IX to acknowledge Henry IV of France as a valid king, despite pressure to the contrary by King Philip of Spain. More than once he was approached by popes to be made a cardinal, but St Philip’s humility always led him to turning these offers down.
By the time of his death on 26 May 1595 the Oratory had grown, and was springing up elsewhere in Italy, including Naples. And by the turn of the millennium there were seventy-four Congregations of the Oratory in seventeen countries (including the UK), all with the aim of holding meetings and reaching out in practical parochial care in the area they live in.
Cardinal Newman was particularly devoted to St Philip Neri, and constructed the following prayer in his honour:
‘Philip, my glorious advocate, teach me to look at all I see around me after thy pattern as the creatures of God. Let me never forget that the same God who made me, made the whole world and all men and all animals that are in it. Gain me the grace to love all God’s works for God’s sake, and all men for the sake of my Lord and Saviour who has redeemed them by the Cross. And especially let me be tender and compassionate and loving towards all Christians, as my brethren in grace. And do thou, who on earth wast so tender to all, be especially tender to us, and feel for us, bear with us in all our troubles, and gain for us from God, with whom thou dwellest in beatific light, all the aids necessary for bringing us safely to Him and to thee.’