St Philip Neri was born 500 years ago in Florence, in the early hours of July 22. Just hours later the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity were infused into his soul in baptism.
Our Lord tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard. The tiniest of seeds, it grows into a great tree in the branches of which the birds come and make their nests. The seed that was planted in St Philip’s heart in the famous Baptistery of St John, and which germinated and took root during his childhood in Florence, would eventually flourish into a mighty tree in Rome. His own room was the nest (he called it his nido) in which the fledgling first Oratory became the base for a mission that would earn him the title Apostle of Rome.
As other Oratories were established, it was St Philip’s wish that each house remain autonomous, and this status is preserved to this day in the Church’s law. Nevertheless, every Oratory is to be like a branch that is animated and nourished by that supernatural life that was nurtured in St Philip’s nido half a millennium ago. An Oratory is supposed to provide a spiritual home, usually in an urban context, in which friendship with Our Saviour is nurtured under the gentle guidance of St Philip and the protection of Our Lady.
St Philip is usually listed among the saints of the Counter-Reformation. Mention of this authentic and glorious renewal conjures up images of the Church rolling out all the engines of war. Established religious orders were reformed or suppressed; new congregations equipped with spiritual and intellectual artillery to defend the Faith and reclaim territories lost to schism; Jesuits deployed around Europe to dispute with heretics, or despatched to risk life and limb recruiting converts in the New World.
In contrast to this, St Philip’s mission within the Church Militant took place on the home front. In the words of John Henry Newman, “He put away from him monastic rule and authoritative speech as David refused the armour of his king… His weapons should be but unaffected humility and unpretending love. All he did was to be done by the light and fervour and convincing eloquence of his personal character and his easy conversation. He came to the Eternal City and he sat himself down there, and his home and his family gradually grew up around him.” In other words, it was through personal contact and friendship that St Philip contributed to the spiritual renewal in Rome that was essential to the success of the Catholic Reformation.
Under the tyranny of sentimentalism that reigns today, friendship can take on a shallow meaning and end up being described in terms of feelings and utility. To understand how friendship was so effective in St Philip’s apostolate, it is necessary to appreciate the classical and Christian traditions in which he had been formed by the Dominicans at San Marco, and through his later studies in Rome. In the Aristotelian understanding, friendship is a “settled disposition” – a habit, based on virtue. It involves the recognition of an intrinsic good in the other, and a reciprocated commitment to serve that good and make it flourish.
In a virtuous friendship, the parties work together for the common good. Whereas for Aristotle such friendship is only ever possible between equals, St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on sanctifying grace makes even friendship with God a reality. This is because God shares his divine life with us in baptism.
St Philip excelled in making men’s hearts receptive to this vocation to live as friends with God. His joyful influence fostered an ambience in which his spiritual children found pleasure in each other’s company and encouraged each other in living virtuously. A shy cobbler whom St Philip spotted sitting at the back of the Oratory was summoned to the front and hugged like a long-lost child returning to a family that included cardinals and princes. A watch-seller on the verge of bankruptcy found himself suddenly overwhelmed by eager customers at the Oratory, where St Philip’s friends had been primed to buy every watch he could provide.
This infectious spirit of generosity and charity was fostered by visits to the poor in the Roman hospitals. Even those who came to the Oratory with unworthy motives were eventually captivated by the “winning saint”, and some found themselves taking Holy Orders or religious vows.
This school of Christian friendship was the magnificent mustard tree which developed from that seed of the Kingdom planted in St Philip’s heart half a millennium ago at his baptism in 1515. By his intercession, and under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin, may it continue to flourish for centuries to come.
Fr Julian Large Cong. Orat. is Provost of the London Oratory
This article first appeared in the 17 July, 2015 issue of the Catholic Herald