The thing he stood for and stands for … is what devotional authors have called the liberty of the spirit. … Reforms brought in from above may change the habits of society without changing its heart. You may repress luxury without repressing the love of luxury; you may drive paganism into the catacombs, but it is paganism still. Organization and discipline, the multiplying of rules and methods whether for clergy or laity, produce little effect unless they are freely accepted by the will; they develop scruples in the timorous, command but a lifeless acquiescence from the indifferent.
Let us concentrate ourselves so completely in the divine love, and enter so far into the living fountain of wisdom through the wounded Side of our Incarnate God, that we may deny ourselves and our self love, and so be unable to find our way out of that Wound again.
St Philip Neri
As a young man, Filippo Neri made his way from Florence to Rome, where he earned his lodging as a tutor. He studied philosophy at the Sapienza and theology at Sant’ Agostino. By night he would descend into the Catacombs of St Sebastian and pray for hours on end. These nocturnal visits to the meeting place of the first Christians awakened a love for the early Church and a desire to emulate her martyrs. One of St Philip’s Oratorian biographers, Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro (1824-1912), said:
I think … that even in the formation of his Institute of the Oratory, Philip had before his mind the Christian society of the early ages, with its simplicity, its faith, and its charity … although the particular form of the Oratory grew out of various circumstances, his long dwelling in the Catacombs and the habit of mind he acquired there had a very great influence upon it. Perhaps even the title of the ‘Oratory’, and the very conception of a Congregation which should take its name from prayer, dates back to those years which he passed in almost continual prayer.
St Philip also made a practice of visiting the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome: San Giovanni Laterano, St Peter’s, San Paolo fuori le mura, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Lorenzo fuori le mura, San Sebastiano, and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Before long, Philip was surrounded by a group of friends; together they offered assistance to Roman pilgrims, visited hospitals, and devoted time during the Roman siesta to mental prayer, spiritual reading, conversation, and music. St Philip and his disciples were accustomed to receive the sacraments more frequently than usual. Eventually, at the behest of his confessor, St Philip was ordained a priest.
Msgr Ronald Knox (1888-1957) has written of the paradoxes of St Philip’s vocation—the vocation which he bequeathed to his sons:
… an apostle of the heathen, who finds his heathen not in the remote Indies, but in the very heart and hearth of Christendom; the hermit, who looks for solitude in that most desolate of all wildernesses, a great city; the reformer of the Church who radiates influence from a cell, instead of passing resolutions in the council chamber of Trent.
As another of St Philip’s English biographers, Theodore Maynard (1890-1956), put it: “Just because he did not set out to ‘influence’ people—except in the sense of making them better Christians—his influence was enormous.”
The reforming bishop of Verona, Cardinal Agostino Valier (1531-1606), depicted Philip, appropriately enough, among the fraternity of Christian humanists in his dialogue Philip, or Christian Joy. Another reformer and humanist, the archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti (1522-1597), represented Philip as the source and model of his own teaching in De Bono senectutis, a work which is Christian in inspiration though modeled on ancient sources. In addition to questions of spiritual life and theology, the Abbate Maffa recorded that conversations in Philip’s rooms also touched upon secular literature, which Philip loved to discuss to the end of his life. Philip excelled in the art of conversation and charmed all who spoke with him. This “Christian Socrates,” like his ancient namesake, took an interest in the many-coloured aspects of the human soul and could lay bare the depths of each encounter. Add to this his ready wit, his irony and tenderness, and one can easily divine the attractions of his company.
St Philip’s general rule was to urge his followers to become saints while living in the world. In particular, he was reluctant to encourage those attached to the papal curia, where they were presumably in a position to do great good, to pursue the solitude of a monastic existence.
Although Msgr Knox has spoken of “the sharp tang of his unwonted spirituality,” Philip did not divorce himself from the great tradition. According to the Oratorian bishop, Félix-Jules-Xavier Jourdan de la Passardière (1841-1913): “He received the most elevated and diverse gifts; he united the breadth of vision of St Dominic, the poetry of St Benedict, the wisdom of St Ignatius, and the tender and seraphic love of St Francis. One can say of this marvelous man what St Gregory the Great said of St Benedict, ‘that he was filled with the Spirit of all the just’.”
The Holy Spirit indeed filled St Philip’s heart in a singular way shortly before Pentecost in 1544, while he was praying in the catacombs. A globe of fire manifested itself to him, seeming to enter his mouth and lodge in his breast; the ribs encasing his heart were broken from the inside out. Philip had received a kind of “stigmata of the Holy Spirit.” The true founder of the Congregation, he would say, was not himself; it was the Holy Spirit, it was the Madonna, or it was Divine Providence, directing his steps without his knowing it.
The English College in Rome, founded by Gregory XIII to supply priests during the Elizabethan persecution, was situated directly opposite San Girolamo della Carità, Philip’s home for thirty-two years and the birthplace of the Oratory. Philip often met English seminarians in the streets and invariably greeted them with the words Salvete, Flores Martyrum! [Hail, flowers of the martyrs.] It was their custom upon ordination to obtain the blessing of the saint before they returned to England. Generations later, under the Oxford converts Newman and Faber, St Philip’s Oratory, seemingly the most Italian of institutes, proved remarkably adaptable to English soil:
Now I will say in a word what is the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know, and that is, one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Take such a College … change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes (Newman).
As Newman recognized, after investigating various religious institutes for himself and his fellow converts, the Oratory seemed well adapted to liberally educated men who knew how to make good use of freedom and leisure.
A passage in Newman’s The Idea of a University well captures the spirit and mission of St Philip:
He lived in an age as traitorous to the interests of Catholicism as any that preceded it, or can follow it … and he perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher, but by means of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth. He was raised up to do a work almost peculiar in the Church,—not to be a Jerome Savonarola, though Philip had a true devotion towards him and a tender memory of his Florentine house; not to be a St Charles, though in his beaming countenance Philip had recognized the aureole of a saint; not to be a St Ignatius, wrestling with the foe, though Philip was termed the Society’s bell of call, so many subjects did he send to it; not to be a St Francis Xavier, though Philip had longed to shed his blood for Christ in India with him; not to be a St Caietan, or hunter of souls, for Philip preferred, as he expressed it, tranquilly to cast in his net to gain them; he preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.
And so he contemplated as the idea of his mission, not the propagation of the faith, nor the exposition of doctrine, nor the catechetical schools; whatever was exact and systematic pleased him not; he put from him monastic rule and authoritative speech, as David refused the armour of his king. No; he would be but an ordinary individual priest as others: and his weapons should be but unaffected humility and unpretending love.