Saint Philip Neri (1515–1595)Cardinal Newman prayed to Philip, ‘my dear and holy patron,’ as ‘saint of primitive times.’ This is an arresting title for a man who lived and worked in the Rome of the sixteenth century.
Philip belonged to a late Renaissance culture fired by a passion for experience, for the fruits of learning and discovery, at once intoxicated and disorientated by the advances of science and historical understanding, inspired simultaneously by the magic of a pagan past and a surging anticipation of novelties ahead.
F. Bouyer in his ‘Portrait’ of S. Philip writes of his generation that it was ‘captivated by beauty, freed from all control, and suspicious of any restraint…’ The upheavals of the Reformation were taking their toll. Christianity was a battleground, rent by divisions and scandals, misshapen by both worldliness and every kind of neurotic religiosity. Did the Church have anything left to offer? Bouyer speaks of the younger generation as ‘merely hereditary Christians’, for whom ‘the magic of pagan pleasures were seen through a nostalgic veil, as of some lost paradise.’ Scientific adventure and pagan refinement were the future, their voices ‘irresistibly fascinating because they had been silent for so long.’
In the midst of this fascination lived Philip Neri, the ‘saint of primitive times.’ Newman called him that because Philip looked backwards: to the origins of the Christian world, the foundation of all that had come afterwards, that was now almost hidden from view. He knew that the world first converted to Christianity was no less sophisticated and confused than his own. How had this miracle of grace occurred? How had the world first been won for Christ?
S. Peter had said to the cripple begging at the temple gate, ‘Look at us…I have neither silver nor gold, but I will give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!’ The Apostle then ‘took him by the hand and helped him to stand up. Instantly his feet and ankles became firm, he jumped up, stood, and began to walk…Everyone could see him walking and praising God… They were astonished and unable to explain what had happened to him.’
Yet in time the world did begin to understand - not through argument and rhetoric, but by the simplicity and directness of apostolic preaching, by the searching witness to conscience and the unseen world made when loving self-sacrifice and holiness of life touch men and women who have become jaded and weary, their passions and restlessness masking inner emptiness and frustration. In the mystery and simplicity of the Gospel, those whose souls the world had made lame could be raised up, could be found, like the cripple whom S. Peter had cured, ‘walking and jumping and praising God.’
‘When shall we begin to do good?’ - it was the question by which Philip gained entrance to the hearts of those whom he gathered to him. He desired to arouse faith and to reinstate simplicity, recalling the ambitious and sophisticated to the depths that outstrip mere accomplishment, winning them from what Newman was to call, three centuries later, ‘the aristocracy of talent.’ Devotion, humility and compassion were to remodel their lives.
Philip taught them to pray and frequent the sacraments. He showed them Christ in the poor and the afflicted. With an eccentric resolution that the world took as craziness, he mortified their vanity, their ambition and their sensitivities.
Philip’s mission became the Oratory. Originally named informally from the place where he and his friends would gather to pray, to listen to sermons, to read the lives of the saints and reflect on the mystery of salvation, as the numbers increased and his reputation for holiness spread, Philip himself and then some of his followers were ordained, and the Institute of the Oratory was formed. This was something new in the Church: priests living together in stable community life, but, unlike members of religious orders, without taking vows. Philip desired charity alone to bind the members of the Oratory together. Their life was in one way that of any diocesan priest: they prayed, they preached and they celebrated the sacraments. Yet the spirit imparted to the Oratory by S. Philip was unique. It aroused opposition, misunderstanding, even calumny. But by the end of the sixteenth century S. Philip’s Oratory was acknowledged as having wrought a transformation in the very heart of Christendom. The saint of primitive times had become the Apostle of Rome.
It would have been impossible if, as can happen when religious movements emphasise the simplicities the past, Philip had fallen into the trap of merely repudiating culture and the life of the mind.
But Philip desired consecration, not destruction. Among his followers were poets and painters, historians, philosophers and musicians. Philip knew that sentiment alone was not enough. If devotion was the raising of the mind and the heart to God, then culture mattered. Some of the greatest of his century’s achievements of art and scholarship were produced under the influence of the Oratory.
Yet Philip had discerned the fracture threatening the vitality of the culture around him. Human well-being depended upon the obedience of faith. The intellect and the imagination, the will and the affections, could not flourish without it. Humanity would be swamped by the pride of the mind and the waywardness of the passions, unless culture were shaped from within by a Christian conscience and the real apprehension of the love of God.
These were not abstract principles. Culture must have a living relation to the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, which is the making present of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, Who for our sake suffered, died and rose again. In that context, everything truly human can flourish.
So the saint of primitive times was also a Christian humanist. In the mysterious seclusion of the Roman catacombs, where as a young man Philip had prayed, he had encountered and received the spirit of the early Church, its direct and passionate detachment from the powers and rewards of this world, the simplicity and purity of its confidence in the sacramental presence of Christ indwelling His mystical Body. Resurfacing into the world’s glare, he carried in his heart what the Holy Spirit had taught him: the pattern by which men and women can be healed and culture and society reformed.
Father Philip Cleevely
of the Oratory