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St Philip Neri

Feast day: 26 May

Philip Neri was the son of Francesco di Neri, a lawyer, and his wife, Lucrezia da Mosciano, whose family were nobility in the service of the state. He was born in Florence in 1516. He received his education from the friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He particularly commended two of his teachers there for what he had learned from them. At the age of eighteen he was sent to his uncle Romolo, a wealthy merchant, to assist him in the business, with the hope he might inherit his uncle’s fortune. He bonded well with his uncle but soon had a religious conversion and decided to move to Rome. There he became a tutor in the household of an aristocrat. After two years he began his studies of theology and philosophy under the guidance of the Augustinians, which lasted three years, and then began to work with the poor and sick, which earned him the title “Apostle of Rome.” He also ministered to the prostitutes of the city.

He started his mission as a layman, by entering into conversations with people, engaging in questions and answers, and leading them to reflect on the quality and meaning of their lives. At that tim the church in Rome was in bad shape; buildings were neglected, priests often failed to say mass, the college of cardinals was controlled by powerful families, and the laity were careless in their practice of the faith. Philip was seeking to address these issues. In 1544 he met Ignatius Loyola. Many of Philip’s disciples joined the infant Society of Jesus. In that year he also had a profound spiritual experience: on the eve of Pentecost he was praying, and it seemed that a globe of fire entered his mouth. Immediately he felt filled with divine love and fell to the ground crying: “Enough, enough Lord, I can bear no more.” After his death he was found to have two cracked ribs.

In 1548, together with his confessor, Philip founded the confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents. Their primary objective was to minister to the needs of poor pilgrims who flocked to Rome especially in jubilee years and also to help patients discharged from hospital but too weak to work. Members met for prayer at the Church of St Salvatore in Campo, where the Forty Hour Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was introduced to Rome.

In 1551 Philip was ordained a deacon and then a priest. He thought of going to India as a missionary but friends dissuaded him saying that there was plenty of work to do at home; accordingly, he and some companions established themselves at the Hospital of San Girolomo della Carità and began to form the Oratory with which his name is connected. It started with a series of meetings in a hall (the Oratory), at which there were prayers and hymns as well as readings from scripture, the church fathers and the Martyrology, followed by a reflection on some topic. The musical selections, settings of scenes from sacred history, were called “oratorios.” Giovanni da Palestrina was a follower of Philip and composed music for the services. Members of the society undertook various kinds of mission work around Rome, notably the preaching of sermons in different churches every evening, a completely new idea at the time. Philip also spent many hours hearing confessions.

In 1574 the Florentines asked that Philip leave San Girolomo to oversee their newly-built church in Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. He was at first reluctant but by the consent of Pope Pius IV he accepted, while remaining in charge of San Girolomo. The new society had gained many eminent members who later became cardinals. In 1574 the Florentines built a large oratory next to San Giovanni to save them the tiring journey from San Girolomo every day and the headquarters was moved there.

As the community grew it was felt that a a church of their own was needed. The small parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella was offered but it was too small for their purpose, so a magnificent church was erected in its place. It was then that Philip formally organized a community of secular priests called the Congregation of the Oratory. This was done by permission of a papal bull. The new church was dedicated in 1577 and the clergy of the society gave up the charge of San Giovanni. Philip himself did not leave San Girolomo till 1583 and then only by order of the pope who commanded that as the superior he should live at the chief house of his congregation. He was initially elected for three years but in 1587 was elected superior for life. However he had no desire to be superior-general over many dependent houses, so it was arranged that all congregations formed outside Rome would be autonomous. This regulation was confirmed by a brief of Gregory XV in 1622.

Philip Neri generally steered clear of politics, but he intervened with Pope Clement VIII to revoke the excommunication of the Huguenot, Henry of Navarre, who became Henry IV of France. Henry had already become a Catholic and Philip felt allowing excommunication to continue and refusing to receive the King’s ambassador would only rekindle the civil war in France. He actually took the dramatic step of directing the Pope’s confessor, a member of the oratory, to refuse Clement absolution until he complied.

Philip died in 1595 on the Feast of Corpus Christi, after spending the day hearing confessions and receiving visitors. He was in a radiantly happy mood and his doctor told him that he had never seen him look so well. Philip himself, however, knew he was gong to die. In the evening he had a severe haemorrhage and died that night. He was canonised in 1622 along with SS Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, Isidore the farmer and Teresa of Avila. “Four Spaniards and one Saint!” declared the Romans. His body is venerated in the Chiesa Nuova.

Philip had an engaging personality that helped him to easily begin conversations with people with a view to persuading them to lead better lives. “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?” was one of his stock phrases. He had a sense of humour and felt it was important for a Christian to have a cheerful disposition: “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect that a downcast one,” he said. He dressed neatly and lived plainly with a very frugal diet. He was one of the most influential members of the Counter-Reformation. He devised a form of living for priests outside the confines of the monastery but with a sense of community and a daily regime. There are now 86 congregations of oratories throughout the world. St John Henry Newman was a notable member.

St Philip Neri, founder of the Oratory, pray for us.