Card. Newman praises St. Philip Neri

After discussing in very general terms how the Church must guide the teaching of sciences and literature (in a Catholic university) Newman turns to a brief reflection on the life of great priest who effected change in society by means of his personal dealings with others.

Newman closes this last discourse of the Idea of the University by painting a picture of St. Philip Neri (his spiritual patron), a 16th century priest who left Florence to settle in Rome. Newman first refers to the illusions attending the Renaissance of literature and art and describes the reaction of St. Philip Neri: “He saw the great and the gifted, dazzled by the Enchantress, and drinking in the magic of her song; he saw the high and the wise, the student and the artist, painting, and poetry, and sculpture, and music, and architecture, drawn within her range, and circling round the abyss: he saw heathen forms mounting thence, and forming in the thick air:—all this he saw, and he perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher, but by means of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth.”

St. Philip admired great reformers such as Jerome Savonarola, St. Ignatius, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis Xavier and St. Cayetan, but he chose a different path than each of them, namely that of engaging the culture of his day through prayer and spiritual direction of men who came to see him. He did not go on a mission, nor expound doctrine nor start a catechetical school. In words of Newman: “he preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.”

He welcomed rich and poor, the learned and the ignorant, the young and old, becoming in words of a biographer: “all things to all men.” People traveled from many parts of Europe to see him, and nobles and prelates sought his friendship and advice. Some outstanding men including Cesare Baronius (later Cardinal Baronius), Francesco Zazzara and Flaminio Ricci joined the Oratory, a congregation St. Philip began. Thus this humble priest gained the glorious title of the Apostle of Rome.

Newman concludes the discourse by stating his desire to work in Dublin in the way in which St. Philip worked. With a remarkable honesty he enumerates some of his limitations: “Neither by my habits of life, nor by vigour of age, am I fitted for the task of authority, or of rule, or of initiation. I do but aspire, if strength is given me, to be your minister in a work which must employ younger minds and stronger lives than mine.” Newman wishes to bear witness to his ideals, to shed light on some general questions, and to offer some reflections and his experience. Lastly Newman contemplates that God may not grant him grace equal to his anticipations. In fact

Fr. Newman would leave Dublin definitively for Birmingham in 1858. There in England God had other plans for him. In Birmingham, as earlier in Oxford and Littlemore, Newman was a modern St. Philip Neri and St. Frances de Sales. He spoke to the men and women of his time with truth and charity, leading countless people to God and to the Catholic Church. He did this through his written works and homilies, and especially through his friendship and prayer.

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