St. Philip Neri, priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Oratory

St. Philip Neri, Carlo Dolci St. Philip Neri, Carlo Dolci  (© MET)

In the “peripheries” of the city center

When Philip Neri arrived in Rome in 1534, it was as if a light were lit in the darkness of misery that nestled amidst the glories of the Ara Pacis and the lustrous travertines of the noble palaces. The center of the city had the dirty face of the outskirts, and Philip would go and get a small room, in San Girolamo in via Giulia. By day, even before he was ordained a priest, his kind face and happy heart led those who met him to the warmth of God, to which warmth he added some bread when he was able - or a caress on the forehead, a whispered comfort, to those who complain about the pallets of the Hospital of the Incurables. At night, a soul of fire, Philip, lost in a dialogue so intimate with God that he could make his bed on the steps of a church or even atop the stone of a catacomb.

Always smiling

This, recalls Pope Francis in his Message marking the 500th anniversary of St. Philip Neri’s birth, made him a “passionate proclaimer of the Word of God”. This was the secret that made him a “chiseler of souls”. “His spiritual fatherhood,” Francis observes, “His spiritual fatherhood shone through all of his work, characterized by trust in people, by spurning dark and dreary colours, by a festive spirit and joy, by the conviction that grace does not quell nature but heals it, strengthens it and perfects it.” Quoting St. Philip’s biographer, Pope Francis goes on in that Message to say, “He approached in a simple fashion, now this one, then that one, and everyone quickly became his friend." Pope Francis adds, “He loved spontaneity, avoided artifice, chose the most entertaining ways to educate in Christian virtue. At the same time he proposed a healthy discipline which entailed the exercise of willingness to receive Christ concretely into one’s life.”

The Hour of the Oratory

Many of those, who thus came to know Philip, wanted to do ashe did. Thus, did the “Oratory” come into being, among the fetid hovels perfumed day by day by a charity made of flesh and  - not a project drawn on paper and dropped from above as a cold almsgiving. “Thanks also to the apostolate of St Philip,” writes again Pope Francis, “the commitment to the salvation of souls returned to be a priority in the Church’s action; it was again understood that Pastors must be with the people in order to guide them and support them in the faith.” Philip himself became a pastor, after ordination to the the priesthood in 1551, though he never changed his lifestyle. With time, a first community took shape around him, the cell of the future Congregation of the Oratory that in 1575 received the blessing of Pope Gregory XIII.

“Be lowly”

“My sons, be humble, be lowly: be humble, be lowly,” Fr. Philip would say again and again, reminding his charges that, to be children of God, “It is not enough to honor superiors, but we must honor our equals and the inferiors, and try to be the first to give honor.” Also striking, especially from a soul as contemplative as Mary at the feet of Jesus, the spirit of Martha living in his heart, which we see when he says, “It is better to obey the sacristan and the porter when they call, than to remain in one’s room at prayer.” Philip Neri, the third Apostle of Rome, closed his eyes in the early hours of May 26, 1595. The dynamism of his love has never gone out.