"Give me ten men really detached from the world, and I have the heart to believe I could convert the world with them." -St. Philip Neri
St. Philip Neri – Renewing the Church from its Center.
This year we will see the beatification of the great John Henry Cardinal Newman, English convert and priest of the Oratory. The Congregation of the Oratory was founded by St. Philip Neri in Rome in the 16th century. Sadly, many people are unfamiliar with the life, work, and the vision of St. Philip Neri – the founder of the order that Newman chose as his own after becoming a Roman Catholic.
Philip Romolo Neri, born in 1515 to a Florentine family, had an unremarkable childhood. At 18, while living with his cousin in San Germano, he had a profound conversion experience and set off for Rome. After arriving in Rome, he found a job as a tutor and continued his own studies for three years with the Augustinian friars. Upon completing of his studies he began work among the sick and the poor of the city of Rome, later earning for himself the title “apostle of Rome.”
Although he seriously considered leaving for the foreign missions, Philip continued his “home missionary” work in Rome, extending his work among the prostitutes of Rome and expanding his efforts to care for the many poor pilgrims who traveled to the Eternal City but did not have any food, water or housing. During this time, Philip sought ordination and received the holy orders on May 23, 1551. A unique aspect of his apostolic work was simply engaging people in conversation, traveling through the city like Socrates, leading them to his desired topics of conversation which, of course, would hopefully bring them to Our Lord and Salvation. Using this unique approach to evangelization, he eventually drew to himself a group of enthusiastic, educated young men. This group met regularly in the evenings, prayed, read the Scriptures and the Fathers, and listened to a lecture. The group began to engage in missionary work throughout the city, and the early Oratory was born. By 1556, the Oratory was at work and the men continued their missionary activities in Rome, preaching in the churches every evening – something that had never been done before.
Although Philip himself was blessed with a zeal and gift for winning souls for the Lord, he was never a very public person and avoided the limelight. More than anything else, he enjoyed simply hearing confessions, through which he effected many conversions.
The Congregation of the Oratory received official canonical standing by papal decree on July 15, 1575, as a community of secular priests. Philip did not even put forth his own name for consideration as the superior of the society, so Pope Pius IV intervened and Philip was elected superior for life. Philip, remarkably free from any personal ambition, never desired to preside over an organization or a religious order so he established that each oratory would be self-governing – this was formally confirmed by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. Although this form of governance is common among religious communities today, it was a novelty during Philip's lifetime.
Over the centuries the Congregation of the Oratory has grown slowly and steadily. Today there are over 70 Oratories and over 500 priests in the Congregation. The members of the Oratory spend the day involved in various ministries – clearly the same kind that St. Philip Neri first established: teaching, parish work, spiritual direction, campus ministry, administration or maintaining the fabric of the community house. Some oratories are specifically connected with parishes and thus its members serve as the parish staff.
St. Philip Neri died on May 25 in 1595, the feast of Corpus Christi, at 80 years of age, after spending the day hearing confessions. He was beatified in 1615 and canonized in 1622.
St. Philip Neri, patron of Rome, pray for us!
Please visit our John Henry Newman specialty store.