A Patron Saint for the New Evangelization: St. Philip Neri

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On May 26 the Church celebrates the feast day of a saint whose relative obscurity (in America, at least) is ridiculously out of proportion with his attractiveness and relevance.  It is high time that more people knew St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), the “Apostle of Rome.”

The moniker seems paradoxical; why would Rome, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, need to be evangelized? Yet in the mid-1500’s, the city was like a colorful tapestry which is fast fading and has developed more than a few frayed edges. The best of the Italian Renaissance was over and had given way to a post-Renaissance malaise. Effete decadence, moral laxity, and corruption were the order of the day – precisely the factors which had fueled the Protestant Reformation which now was threatening to rend the Church in two. What’s more, the brutal 1527 Sack of Rome by the Hapsburg army had dealt a harsh blow to the city’s material well being. Rome was a city in a bad way culturally, morally and spiritually.

Into this scene stepped a young, devout layman from Florence named Filippo Neri.  In a rarity for his time, Philip engaged in a lay apostolate, going into marketplaces and shops and talking to people about Jesus. A mustard seed was planted. Philip’s natural warmth and humor made him a magnet for all sorts and classes of people, especially young adults. After he was ordained a priest in 1551 at age 36, Philip began inviting his friends to informal meetings mixing prayer, sermons, spiritual discussions, and musical performances, held in a room above his church. The meetings gradually evolved into the Congregation of the Oratory, an order of secular priests still extant today in over a dozen countries.

In evangelizing young adults, Philip adhered to the principle that knowing what to do with one’s time (a challenge for young people then, as now) is half of the battle. Thus during the heady days of Carnival, Philip arranged outdoor “pilgrimages” to the Seven Basilicas of Rome, with picnic lunches along the way; thousands of Roman citizens abandoned the self-centered and sinful pursuits of the season to participate in this devotion, in the process rediscovering beauties in their city which they had all but forgotten. Thanks to the Oratory, the pilgrimages, his zeal for the Eucharist and tender spiritual direction in the confessional, Philip eventually gained a huge band of followers. They ranged from lawyers and artists to philosophers, historians, courtiers and politicians – as well as a simple man whose fondest wish was to be a sweeper at St. Peter’s. All were drawn to pursue sanctity in their respective walks of life.

Philip attracted this parade of humanity to himself with the sole purpose of leading them on to Christ. Self-effacement was central to his spirituality. Where traditional ascetics sought to mortify the flesh, Philip was more interested in mortifying pride. The sometimes humorous lengths to which he went to achieve this end were legendary: once, when a fellow priest wanted to do penance by wearing a hair-shirt, Philip agreed but told him to wear the hair-shirt outside his regular clothes; the resulting embarrassment was an effective penance in itself.

By the time Philip died in 1595 just shy of his eightieth birthday, his efforts had contributed in an unassuming way to the re-evangelization of his culture, and had helped pave the way for the Church’s great house-cleaning effort, the Catholic Reformation. Philip even left a notable legacy to music history: the musical genre of the oratorio (of which Handel’s Messiah is the most beloved example) was born out of the sacred dialogues-in-music performed at the Oratory. It was this particular angle that attracted me, music-lover that I am, to Philip when it came time to choose a confirmation saint in the eighth grade. Philip has remained my steadfast friend ever since.

If a contest were being held to choose a patron saint for the New Evangelization, I would nominate St. Philip Neri in a heartbeat. This spiritual genius drew people towards Christ and the Church by using the things they were familiar with – music, poetry, the warmth of human emotions, a love of nature. In affirming beauty and culture and channeling them to Christian ends, Philip demonstrated that Catholicism destroys nothing, but purifies and elevates all. St. Philip showed that true humanism – a word co-opted in our time to mean the shutting-out of God – not only can, but must include God. The tools Philip used to combat pride and spiritual boredom, the diseases of his day, ought to be reapplied today as we strive to renew the Church and the world.

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