St. Philip Neri / Filippo Neri (1515 - 1595)
Apostle of Rome and Patron Saint of The Parish
Our parish is named for St. Philip Neri whose statue graces the side altar on the left near the tabernacle. His feast day falls every May 26. So, what do we know about him? —besides being a great Italian, that is! If your sense of history is rusty, this is the 16th century, a period of Catholic “reform” after decades of turbulence following a Western split in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation.
“The city of Rome had fallen into a state of moral and spiritual disrepair. With a few exceptions the Renaissance popes were more distinguished for their patronage of art and their talent for intrigue and statecraft than for their spiritual example. The appointment of cardinals was determined by politics if not by nepotism. Altogether the city was in the sway of a deep cynicism with regard to the Christian message, nevertheless, it was precisely in this atmosphere that Philip Neri gradually conceived of his vocation: nothing less than the re-evangelization of Rome.” (“All Saints,” Robert Ellsberg)
Part 1: The Early Years
He was born in Florence (1515) to parents of minor nobility, but only modest finances due to his father’s interest in alchemy. Despite this, Philip and his two sisters lived comfortably enough and received a good upbringing. Even from childhood, he gained notice for his cheerful disposition and received the nickname of Pippo buono, “good little Phil.” At 18, he moved away to live with a wealthy uncle from whom he stood to inherit, but a dramatic spiritual conversion changed his mind and he decided to move to Rome. He found room and board at the house of an old friend and in exchange, tutored the man's sons for several years, all while maturing, taking classes, and preparing for the work he was yet to discover. After three years of philosophy and theology, he gave up any thought of priesthood and spent the next 13 years in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and good works.
Part 2: The Middle Years
While the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. Still a layman, Philip rapidly gathered around himself a group of young men in need of guidance and who were won over by his audacious and joyous spirituality. Initially, they met as an informal prayer and discussion group. On special feast days Philip would take them on excursions of Roman basilicas. They sang as they walked and stopped for picnics of bread, boiled eggs, and wine. As his followers multiplied, they built a larger meeting room for prayer called an “Oratory.” With time, the walking groups became so popular that hundreds would join in. By 1548 Philip and other laymen in the group had coalesced into a confraternity who visited hospital patients, served the poor, and ministered to pilgrims arriving in Rome without food or shelter.
Finally, Philip’s spiritual director convinced Philip that he could improve his outreach by becoming a priest, so in 1551 at age 36, Philip Neri took further instruction and was ordained. He soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke.
Meanwhile, some of Philip’s followers became priests, some remained laymen, but they all began to live together in community. Although he never intended to found a religious congregation, it developed into a religious institute known as the Oratory. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. Oratorians gained a lasting reputation for musical ability as other composers and Vatican singers contributed their talents. The musical setting known as the “oratorio,” has its origin with St. Philip and his disciples.
(Excerpts from Franciscan Media, Catholic.org, and Owlcation, Fr. Juan Velez, VP)