Saint Philip Neri, Priest

St Philip Neri, Priest (Memorial)

Philip Romolo Neri was born on 22 July, 1515 in Florence, the youngest child of Francesco, a lawyer, and his wife Lucrezia da Mosciano. Philip received his early education from the Dominican friars at the famous San Marco friary in Florence (of which Fra Angelico was once a member). When he was about sixteen, following a fire which destroyed much of his father’s property, Philip was sent to his father’s childless brother, a wealthy merchant, to assist him in his business and with the hope he might inherit his uncle’s fortune. However, the plan was thwarted by Philip’s call to the priesthood.

In 1523, Philip left San Germano and went to Rome, where he became a tutor. Here he was able to continue his studies while beginning the work among the sick and poor which gained him in later life the title of “Apostle of Rome”. In 1538, he began the home mission work for which he would become famous.

In 1551, he passed through all the minor orders, was ordained deacon and finally priest. He settled down, with some companions, at the hospital of San Girolamo della Carità and while there tentatively began, in 1556, the institute with which his name is more especially connected, that of the Oratory.

It was immediately after taking possession of new quarters in Rome that Neri formally organized, under permission of a papal bull dated July 15, 1575, a community of secular priests, called the Congregation of the Oratory. He was at first elected superior for a term of three years, but in 1587, was nominated superior for life. He wished that all congregations formed on his model outside Rome should be autonomous, governing themselves – a regulation afterwards formally confirmed by a brief of Gregory XV in 1622. Neri continued in the government of the Oratory until his death.

Philip had a playful sense of humour, combined with a shrewd wit. He used to say:

A joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.

This was undoubtedly the secret of his popularity and of his place in the folklore of the Roman poor.

Night was his special time of prayer. After dark he would go out in the streets, sometimes to churches, but most often into the catacombs of St. Sebastiano to pray. During one of these times of prayer he felt a globe of light enter his mouth and sink into his heart. This experience gave him so much energy to serve God that he went out to work at the hospital of the incurables and starting speaking to others about God, everyone from beggars to bankers. Many miracles were attributed to him, and it is said that when his body was dissected it was found that two of his ribs had been broken, an event attributed to the expansion of his heart while fervently praying in the catacombs about the year 1545.

Philip Neri was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1600, and canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Neri was not a reformer. His great merit was the instinctive tact which showed him that the older system of monasticism could never be the leaven of secular life, but that something more simple and everyday in character was needed for the times in which he lived.

The Oratory chiefly spread in Italy and in France, where in 1760 there were 58 houses all under the government of a superior-general. An English house, founded in 1847 at Birmingham, is celebrated as the place at which Cardinal Newman fixed his abode after his joining the Catholic Church. In 1849, a second congregation was founded in King William Street, Strand, London, with Fr Frederick William Faber as superior. In 1854, it was transferred to Brompton, where it is still based. Its church, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was consecrated April 16, 1884, and is the second largest Roman Catholic church in London.

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