Saint of the Day – 26 May – St Philip Neri Cong. Orat. Priest and Founder, Mystic, Missionary of Charity, also known as: Amabile Santo, the Second Apostle of Rome, Philip Romolo Neri – (22 July 1515 at Florence, Italy – 27 May 1595 at the church of San Maria in Vallicella, Italy of natural causes) Canonised: 12 March 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. Patron of Gravina, Italy, Rome, Italy, laughter, humour, joy, archdiocese of Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, United States Army Special Forces. When summoned to hear confessions or to see someone who had called, Neri came down instantly with the words “We must leave Christ for Christ”. Philip was a mystic of the highest order, a man of ecstasies and visions, whose greatest happiness was to be alone with God. Yet at the call of charity he gave up the delight of prayer and, instead, sought God by helping his neighbour. His whole life is that of the contemplative in action.
He was the son of Francesco di Neri, a lawyer and his wife Lucrezia da Mosciano, whose family were nobility in the service of the Italian state. He was carefully brought up and received his early teaching from the friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He was accustomed in later life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two of them, Zenobio de’ Medici and Servanzio Mini. At the age of 18, Philip was sent to his uncle, Romolo, a wealthy merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town near the base of Monte Cassino, to assist him in his business and with the hope that he might inherit his uncle’s fortune. He gained Romolo’s confidence and affection but soon after coming to San Germano Philip had a religious conversion – he no longer cared for things of the world and chose to relocate to Rome in 1533.
After arriving in Rome, Neri became a tutor in the house of a Florentine aristocrat named Galeotto Caccia. After two years he began to pursue his own studies (for a period of three years) under the guidance of the Augustinians. Following this, he began those labours amongst the sick and poor which, in later life, gained him the title of “Apostle of Rome”. He also ministered to the prostitutes of the city. In 1538 he entered into the home mission work for which he became famous; traveling throughout the city, seeking opportunities of entering into conversation with people and of leading them to consider the topics he set before them. For seventeen years Philip lived as a layman in Rome, probably without thinking of becoming a priest. Around 1544, he made the acquaintance of Ignatius of Loyola. Many of Neri’s disciples found their vocations in the infant Society of Jesus.
In 1548, together with his confessor, Persiano Rossa, Neri founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents whose primary object was to minister to the needs of the thousands of poor pilgrims who flocked to Rome, especially in jubilee years and also to relieve the patients discharged from hospitals but who were still too weak for labour. Members met for prayer at the church of San Salvatore in Campo where the devotion of the Forty Hours of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was first introduced into Rome
In 1551 Neri received all the minor orders and was ordained deacon and finally priest (on 23 May). He thought of going to India as a missionary but was dissuaded by his friends who saw that there was abundant work to be done in Rome. Accordingly, he settled down, with some companions, at the Hospital of San Girolamo della Carità, and while there tentatively began, in 1556, the institute with which his name is more especially connected, that of the Oratory. The scheme at first was no more than a series of evening meetings in a hall (the Oratory), at which there were prayers, hymns, and readings from Scripture, the church fathers and the Martyrology, followed by a lecture, or by discussion of some religious question proposed for consideration. The musical selections (settings of scenes from sacred history) were called oratorios. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers and composed music for the services. The scheme was developed and the members of the society undertook various kinds of mission work throughout Rome, notably the preaching of sermons in different churches every evening, a completely new idea at that time. He also spent much of his time hearing confessions, and effected many conversions in this way. Neri sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way.
In 1564 the Florentines requested that Neri leave San Girolamo to oversee their newly built church in Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. He was at first reluctant but by consent of Pope Pius IV he accepted, while remaining in charge of San Girolamo, where the exercises of the Oratory were kept up. At this time the new society included among its members Caesar Baronius, the ecclesiastical historian, Francesco Maria Tarugi, afterwards Archbishop of Avignon and Ottavio Paravicini, all three of whom were subsequently cardinals, and also Gallonius (Antonio Gallonio), author of a well-known work on the Sufferings of the Martyrs, Ancina, Bordoni, and other men of ability and distinction. In 1574, the Florentines built a large oratory or mission-room for the society, next to San Giovanni, in order to save them the fatigue of the daily journey to and from San Girolamo and to provide a more convenient place of assembly and the headquarters were transferred there.
As the community grew and its mission work extended, the need for a church entirely its own made itself felt and the offer of the small parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, conveniently situated in the middle of Rome, was made and accepted. The building, however, not large enough for their purpose, was pulled down and a splendid church erected on the site. It was immediately after taking possession of their new quarters that Neri formally organized, under permission of a papal bull dated 15 July 1575, a community of secular priests, called the Congregation of the Oratory. The new church was consecrated early in 1577 and the clergy of the new society at once resigned the charge of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini; Neri himself did not leave San Girolamo until 1583 and then only by virtue of an injunction of the pope that he, as the superior, should reside at the chief house of his congregation. He was at first elected for a term of three years (as is usual in modern societies) but in 1587 was nominated superior for life. He was, however, entirely free from personal ambition and had no desire to be superior general over a number of dependent houses, so he desired that all congregations formed on his model outside Rome should be autonomous, governing themselves and without endeavouring for Neri to retain control over any new colonies they might themselves send out—a regulation afterwards formally confirmed by a brief of Gregory XV in 1622.
Philip Neri embodied a number of contradictions, combining popular venerations with intensely individual piety. He became embedded in the church hierarchy while seeking to reform a corrupt Rome and an uninterested clergy. He possessed a playful humour, combined with a shrewd wit. He considered a cheerful temper to be more Christian than a melancholy one and carried this spirit into his whole life: “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.” This was the secret of Neri’s popularity and of his place in the folklore of the Roman poor. Many miracles were attributed to him. When his body was autopsied it was found that two of his ribs had been broken, an event attributed to the expansion of his heart while fervently praying in the catacombs about the year 1545. ] Benedict XIV, who reorganised the rules for canonisation, decided that Philip’s enlarged heart was caused by an aneurism. Ponnelle and Bordet, in their 1932 biography St. Philip Neri and the Roman Society of His Times (1515-1595), conclude that it was partly natural and partly supernatural. What is certain is that Philip himself and his penitents associated it with divine love.
“Practical commonplaceness,” says Frederick William Faber in his panegyric of Neri, “was the special mark which distinguishes his form of ascetic piety from the types accredited before his day. He looked like other men … he was emphatically a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true but with no marks of poverty about it—In a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and a very various information.”
Accordingly, Neri was ready to meet the needs of his day to an extent and in a manner which even the versatile Jesuits, who much desired to enlist him in their company, did not rival; and, though an Italian priest and head of a new religious order, his genius was entirely unmonastic and unmedieval, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private devotion.
Neri prayed, “Let me get through today and I shall not fear tomorrow.”
When summoned to hear confessions or to see someone who had called, Neri came down instantly with the words “We must leave Christ for Christ”. Philip was a mystic of the highest order, a man of ecstasies and visions, whose greatest happiness was to be alone with God. Yet at the call of charity he gave up the delight of prayer and, instead, sought God by helping his neighbour. His whole life is that of the contemplative in action.
Neri died around the end of the day on 25 May 1595, the Feast of Corpus Christi that year, after having spent the day hearing confessions and receiving visitors. ] About midnight he began hemorrhaging and Baronius read the commendatory prayers over him. Baronius asked that he would bless his spiritual sons before dying and though he could no longer speak, he blessed them with the sign of the cross and died.
Neri was beatified by Paul V in 1615, and canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. His memorial is celebrated on 26 May. His body is in the Chiesa Nuova (“New Church”) in Rome.
Neri is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself.
The congregation Neri founded is of the least conventional nature, rather resembling a residential clerical club than a monastery of the older type and its rules (never written by Neri, but approved by Pope Paul V in 1612) would have appeared incredibly lax. In fact its religious character would seem almost doubtful to men such as Bruno, Stephen Harding, Francis of Assisi or Saint Dominic. It admits only priests aged at least 36, or seminarians who have completed their studies and are ready for ordination, supported by lay brothers. The members live in community and each pays his own expenses, having the usufruct of his private means—a startling innovation on the monastic vow of poverty. They have indeed a common table but it is kept up precisely as a regimental mess, by monthly payments from each member. Nothing is provided by the society except the bare lodging and the fees of a visiting physician. Everything else—clothing, books, furniture, medicines—must be defrayed at the private charges of each member. There are no vows and every member of the society is at liberty to withdraw when he pleases and to take his property with him. The government, strikingly unlike the Jesuit autocracy, is of a republican form; and the superior, though first in honour, has to take his turn in discharging all the duties which come to each priest of the society in the order of his seniority, including that of waiting at table, which is not entrusted in the Oratory to lay brothers, according to the practice in most other communities. Four deputies assist the superior in the government and all public acts are decided by a majority of votes of the whole congregation, in which the superior has no casting voice. To be chosen superior, 15 years of membership are requisite as a qualification, and the office is tenable, as all the others, for but 3 years at a time. No one can vote until he has been three years in the society; the deliberative voice is not obtained before the eleventh year.
There are thus three classes of members: novices, triennials and decennials. Each house can call its superior to account, can depose and can restore him, without appeal to any external authority, although the bishop of the diocese in which any house of the Oratory is established is its ordinary and immediate superior, though without power to interfere with the rule. Their churches are non-parochial and they can perform such rites as baptisms, marriages, etc., only by permission of the parish priest, who is entitled to receive all fees due in respect of these ministrations.
The Oratory chiefly spread in Italy and in France, where in 1760 there were 58 houses all under the government of a superior-general. Nicolas Malebranche, Louis Thomassin, Jules Mascaron and Jean Baptiste Massillon were members of the famous branch established in Paris in 1611 by Bérulle (later cardinal), which had a great success and a distinguished history. It fell in the crash of the French Revolution but was revived by Père Pététot, curé of St Roch, in 1852, as the “Oratory of Jesus and the Immaculate Mary”; the Church of the Oratory near the Louvre belongs to the Reformed Church.
Neri encouraged the singing of the lauda spirituale (laude) in his oratory services. The prominent composers Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina probably participated in this music. His unique and varied aesthetic experience has been highlighted in a study by the Italian historian Francesco Danieli.