Undoubtedly, one of Rome’s most popular saints is Philip Neri. Like Saint Frances of Rome and Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, Philip Neri seems to be near and dear to the hearts of many Romans and Italians in general. In fact, Philip Neri is called the “Third Apostle of Rome,” right up there after Saints Peter and Paul. That is pretty high honors! Philip Neri lived from 1515 to 1595, long after the two great Apostles of Rome, first as a zealous layman, then as priest and founder of a new society, composed of secular clergy and laymen, called the Congregation of the Oratory.
Though Italian, Filippo Romolo Neri was not born in Rome, but in Florence (Firenze, in Italian). His father, Francesco, was a lawyer and his mother was named Lucrezia, whose family was of nobility, in the service of the state. The Dominican friars at San Marco convent in Florence educated young Philip. When he was eighteen, he was sent to assist a wealthy uncle named Romolo, a merchant, who lived at San Germano, near Monte Cassino. Philip’s middle name was the same as this uncle. The family hope was that Philip would learn the trade of Romolo and eventually inherit his uncle’s fortune. Philip certainly won the confidence and affection of his uncle Romolo, but not long after arriving in San Germano, Philip had a religious conversion. Afterwards, worldly matters meant little to Philip and he relocated to Rome. This was in the year 1533, when Philip was still eighteen.
In Rome Philip became a tutor in the house of a family from Florence. Two years later he pursued studies under the guidance of Augustinian friars in Rome. These studies were followed by work among the sick, poor and prostitutes of Rome, eventually earning Philip Neri the title of “Apostle of Rome.” By 1538, when twenty-three, he modified his work somewhat to traveling throughout Rome seeking opportunities to converse with people and having them consider various religious topics that he would propose. He carried on this work for seventeen years, as a layman, and without thinking of becoming a priest. Around 1544, when almost thirty, he got to know Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Some who had been friends of Philip Neri went to join the recently founded Jesuit Order under Saint Ignatius, but Philip did not feel called to do likewise.
By about the age of thirty-three, Philip Neri and his confessor, Padre Persiano Rossa, started the lay “Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents.” Their primary work was to minister to the thousands of poor pilgrims to Rome, especially during Jubilee Years. They also helped people recently released from the hospital but who were still too fragile to work at regular jobs. Members of the Holy Trinity Confraternity regularly met at the little church of San Salvatore in Campo, near Campo de’ Fiori. At San Salvatore the practice of Forty Hours of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was first taken up in Rome. Today the church is used by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Rome. Sometimes I walk by on Sunday mornings and hear their beautiful chanting or to purchase a simple hand carved wooden cross.
In 1551, at the age of thirty-six, Philip Neri was ordained a priest and thought of going to India as a missionary. Friends convinced him to remain in Rome, seeing the good work he was accomplishing there. He and some companions took up residence at the Hospital of Saint Jerome of Charity in 1556 close to Campo de’ Firoi, and began what they called “the Oratory,” the word simply referring to a hall and place of prayer. The idea behind the Oratory was first conceived of as evening gatherings for prayers, hymns, readings from Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, the reading of the Martyrology (lives of the saints) for the day, followed by a lecture or discussion of a religious topic proposed for consideration. For these sunset gatherings music was composed, called “oratorios,” being a short orchestral piece on a religious theme. The most famous composer of these oratorios was Giovanni Palestrina, a follower and friend of Philip Neri.
As the Oratory idea developed, members took up various good works throughout Rome, especially the preaching of sermons in different churches in the city, something new at that time, as preaching had fallen into decline. Philip Neri also spent a lot of time hearing confessions, and assisted in the conversions of many people. Another popular work of the Oratory was little pilgrimages from church to church in Rome, often accompanied by music and having a picnic along the way. These pilgrimages of Philip Neri were designed to counteract the unsavory behavior of Carnival days before the beginning of Lent. The walks of the Oratory drew in good numbers of people.
In 1564 Philip was persuaded to oversee the new church that the people of Florence had built in Rome, called San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This church is quite close to the Vatican and I pass it every time I go to Vatican City. Next to San Giovanni church a residence and headquarters was built for Philip Neri and his Oratory. The community Philip began continued to grow and its works extended. In time another church was offered to Philip Neri. That church was later considered too small, so torn down and a larger one, now called “Chiesa Nuova,” the “new church” was built.
In 1575 at the Chiesa Nuova the Congregation of the Oratory was formally recognized and its headquarters were transferred there from San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Chiesa Nuova is on the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, close to our curia Sant’Ambrogio. It is also where Philip Neri was buried at his death on May 25th, 1595, the Feast of Corpus Christi that year. He died after a day of hearing confessions and receiving visitors. He was beatified twenty years after his death, in 1615, and canonized in 1622.
Philip Neri was a man with a good sense of humor, believing cheerfulness and friendliness to be of the utmost importance. He said, “A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.” After his death it was found that two of his ribs near his heart had been broken. This was attributed to the physical enlargement of his heart, in his love of God and neighbor. Whether it was natural or supernatural, it is a good symbol of the “lovely and loving” person that Philip Neri was. One of his prayers included these words, “Lord, let me get through today and I shall not fear tomorrow.”
Considered something of a “modern saint,” for not basing his new community on older models of religious life, he is known for combining personal holiness with and influencing the “man on the street,” in modest but important ways. The freedom of action that he and his followers observed was definitely non-cloistered and reached people in a different way than traditional monasticism did.
His Congregation is today a Pontifical (meaning approved by the Vatican) Society of Apostolic Life, composed of priests and brothers who live in community but without formal religious vows. Most often they are called Oratorians. They take on various works, including parish and campus ministry.
In 2010 a life of Saint Philip Neri was produced for Italian television, called, “Preferisco il Paradiso” (I Prefer Heaven). I have not seen it, so I cannot vouch for its quality, but as an Italian production, I am guessing it is pretty well done. The video is available in the USA through Ignatius Press.
Saint Philip Neri, pray for us!