St Philip Neri was a gentle and joyful saint who had a particular gift to offer the Eternal City

In 1995, the 400th anniversary year of St Philip Neri’s death began with Pope John Paul II beatifying one of his Oratorian sons in Sri Lanka. Twenty years later, Pope Francis returned to Colombo to canonise Joseph Vaz, the Goan Oratorian who became the Apostle of Sri Lanka. It was a fitting beginning to 2015, the quincentennial year of St Philip’s birth in Florence.

At his birth in 1515, Catholic Europe was in dire need of urgent reform, but unsure whence it would come. In his Florentine infancy, the Church would be sundered by Luther; as an adult, Philip himself would lead the Counter-Reformation in Rome, one of the dramatis personae of a century which included Thomas More, John Fisher, Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Charles Borromeo and Pius V, to mention only the canonised saints.

While St Joseph Vaz may have felicitously marked these anniversaries of Philip Neri, the most famous son of St Philip is John Henry Newman. Through Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, Philip’s influence has spread throughout the English-speaking world, whether it be the influence on Tolkien’s childhood in Birmingham or the Newman Centres that dot university campuses throughout North America.

“He lived in an age as traitorous to the interests of Catholicism as any that preceded it, or can follow it,” wrote Newman about Philip in The Idea of a University, “… 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.”

It remains an open question whether Newman would have judged the 20th and 21st centuries as less “traitorous” to the faith than the 16th, but the need for reform and evangelisation is certainly urgent. Whether Philip’s model of the fascinating the world with joyful virtue is the most effective means also remains an open question, as it was in his day. For Philip’s path, to put it mildly, was not that chosen by other dominant figures of the day.

“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 [Borromeo], though in his beaming countenance Philip had recognised 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 Cajetan, 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.”

Newman argued that the gentle and joyful saint had a particular gift to offer the Eternal City. The great reformers looked to Rome for approval of their battle plans; Philip in Rome lived the life for which those battles were to be fought, a life in which the purity and truth of the Gospel were attractively lived. And the attraction was powerful, as Newman explained:

“The first families of Rome were his friends and penitents. Nobles of Poland, Grandees of Spain, Knights of Malta, could not leave Rome without coming to him. Cardinals, archbishops, and bishops were his intimates; … Pope Pius IV died in his arms. Lawyers, painters, musicians, physicians, it was the same too with them. Baronius, Zazzara, and Ricci left the law at his bidding, and joined his congregation to do its work, to write the annals of the Church, and to die in the odour of sanctity. Palestrina had Father Philip’s ministrations in his last moments… And who was he, I say, all the while, but an humble priest, a stranger
in Rome, with no distinction of family or letters, no claim of station or office, great simply in the attraction with which a Divine Power had gifted him? and yet thus humble, thus unenobled, thus empty-handed, he has achieved the glorious title of Apostle of Rome.”

So he was, the great reformer of Rome. And through his illustrious sons, he was an apostle to those lands abroad to which he desired to travel, but never did.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine