500 years later, Philip Neri still a witness to joy

They called him “the electric eel,” because just being around him often was enough to jolt your lazy conscience and make you want to live a better life, without ever feeling alienated or condemned. This year, the 500th anniversary of St. Philip Neri’s birth, offers Christians a good opportunity to look again at his life and to be jolted anew by his inspiring witness.

‘He radiated joy’

Philip Neri was born on July 22, 1515, in a working-class region near Florence, Italy. He grew up there with his father and stepmother (his mother had died when he was very young). At age 18, he moved to the small town of San Germano, where he got to know the Benedictine monks of the nearby Monte Cassino abbey. From them, he developed a profound love of the liturgy, the Bible and the ancient Church Fathers.

By the time Philip moved to Rome a year or so later, he was burning with a desire to introduce others to God and the Scriptures. And Rome needed him. Vices and temptations of all kinds fought for the attention of citizens and visitors alike. Even many of the clergy there were more interested in luxury and worldly concerns than in prayer or pastoral work.

From the start, young Philip led an effective ministry of drawing people to Christ by the power of his own vibrant witness. At the heart of this witness was joy.

“Philip radiated joy. If we had encountered him on the street, we could see it coming a mile away. He had a ready laugh, a great sense of humor and profound holiness,” Father Richard Mullins told Our Sunday Visitor in a recent interview. Father Mullins is pastor of St. Thomas Apostle parish in Washington, D.C., and a member of a new community of priests in formation as Oratorians, an organization founded by St. Philip.

“What really grabbed people was that wonderful balance of holiness and humor,” Father Mullins said.

As a result, people gravitated to him. They walked and talked with him in the streets. They gathered with him in long conversations about the Word of God and the teachings of the Church.

He led groups on long treks around Rome, going from church to church to pray, usually laughing and singing along the roads in between.

Many young men, inspired by Philip, ended up joining the then-newly founded Society of Jesus — so many, in fact, that St. Ignatius Loyola, the order’s founder, took to calling Philip “the Society’s bell”!

Man of prayer

But Philip’s gregarious demeanor was fueled by a profound spirituality. He lived a life of intense communion with God through prayer. He spent long hours of silent prayer in churches, in the Roman catacombs and in his tiny apartment. “This astonishingly human saint,” the great theologian Louis Bouyer once wrote, “was saturated with the supernatural.”

In one of these intense moments of prayer, Philip had a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon him as a ball of fire, entering his mouth and lodging in his heart. For years afterward, he felt this divine fire burning there. And it seems to have affected him physically; after his death, an autopsy revealed a heart so enlarged that it had displaced several ribs in his chest.

In 1548, Philip helped found a group of laymen dedicated to serving pilgrims to Rome, and by the Holy Year of 1550, when huge crowds of pilgrims streamed through the city, they were running a hostel serving about 500 people a day.

Following the advice of his spiritual director, Philip was ordained a priest in 1551. He began to spend long mornings in church to hear confessions, a practice he continued for decades. In the afternoons, he continued to host meetings of laypeople who gathered to talk, pray and sing together.

As this group grew, Philip kept having to find larger locations in which to meet. Eventually he settled on the spacious loft of a church, which the group began calling their oratory (meaning “a place for prayer”). Soon, these daily meetings were themselves known as the Oratory.

Each meeting included a talk offered by one of the members. At times, the Vatican looked skeptically upon the activities, mostly because too much of the leadership and teaching was carried out by laypeople.

After a few of the young men who were a part of his Oratory community became priests at Philip’s urging, they continued to gather daily with him to pray and encourage one another. This was the beginning of the Congregation of the Oratory. (See sidebar.)

The Oratory location continued to shift until, in 1575, the Pope assigned a large church in the center of Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella, to Philip for his activities. (Pilgrims today can visit St. Philip’s tomb there. It is commonly known as the Chiesa Nuova, or “new church.”) By the time he had reached his 70s, still meeting regularly with lay Christians and hearing confessions for long hours, Philip was renowned for his holiness and wisdom. In his final years, laypeople, priests and cardinals came from all over Europe to visit him and seek his guidance. Father Philip died in Rome on May 25, 1595, the feast of Corpus Christi, just before his 80th birthday. He was canonized in 1622.

‘A luminous model’

Father Mullins sees Philip as a role model for lay people, especially in our day.

“The Church is calling us to the new evangelization, to invite baptized Christians to take a second look at their faith,” he said. “Philip Neri did that constantly. Philip is a great model for a lay evangelizer. He reminds us we can win a lot more people with honey than with vinegar. He is a role model for today’s new evangelization.”

To mark St. Philip’s 500th birthday, Pope Francis recently sent a message to the procurator-general of the Congregation of the Oratory. “Thanks also to the apostolate of St. Philip,” the pope wrote, “the commitment to the salvation of souls returned to be a priority in the Church’s action; it was again understood that pastors must be with the people in order to guide them and support them in faith. ... St. Philip Neri also remains a luminous model of the Church’s ongoing mission in the world.”

Barry Hudock is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II” (Liturgical Press, $19.95).

What is the Congregation of the Oratory?
Founded by St. Philip Neri in 1575, the Congregation of the Oratory remains today an organization of secular priests (that is, they are not consecrated religious bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) who live in communities of prayer and mutual support. Its members are known as Oratorians.