Who was Philip Neri and what were the important stages in his formation?
Having recounted the life of Savonarola, and referring to God’s appearance to Elijah in the cave, Newman writes: “After the storm, the earthquake and the fire, the calm, soothing whisper of the fragrant air. After Savonarola, Philip.”
Philip was born in Florence only twenty years after Savonarola, and grew up at the convent of St. Mark where the memory of Savonarola remained very much alive. He kept his picture in his room and years later about the year 1560 defended before two popes the condemnation of Savonarola’s teaching.
The first years of his life he was under the influence of the Dominicans at St. Mark’s. At the age of 18 he moved to Naples for two years where he learned from the Benedictines, and after that spent the remaining sixty years of his life in Rome where he met St. Ignatius of Loyola. In successive manner he came under the influence of three great saints: Dominic, Benedict and Ignatius.
From the Dominicans he learned philosophy and theology, raising a harmonious edifice of knowledge in contrast to the humanism of his time which gave predominance to philosophy, poetry, art and music in opposition to religion.
Near the famous monastery of Monte Cassino he learned from the Benedictine monks to pray in the calm and beauty of the country amid the toil of daily life, far from the grandeur of the medieval city. He spent time meditating Christ’s Passion. When after this he moved to Rome he spent close to ten years living around the ancient basilicas and catacombs, living a life of prayer and penance. Through this imitation of Christ and the practice of works of charity Philip Neri had become Christ-like.
Then followed a watershed moment in his life. In the words of Newman: he thus lived “till at length he had that marvellous visitation, when the Holy Ghost came down upon him in a ball of fire, about the time of Pentecost, and filled his heart with consolations so overwhelming that, lest he should die of ecstasy, he came up into the world of men, and set about a work to flesh and blood more endurable.”
Newman summed up the two foundational periods for this great reformer: “Thus was the second stage of Philip’s education brought to a close; and, as from St. Dominic he gained the end he was to pursue, so from St. Benedict he learned how to pursue it. He was to pursue Savonarola’s purposes, but not in Savonarola’s way; rather, in the spirit and after the fashion of those early Religious, of which St. Benedict is the typical representative.”
Neri began studying theology in Rome while working as tutor for a Florentine family, and caring for the poor as well as prostitutes. In 1551 he was ordained a deacon and a priest (on May 23rd). He thought of going to India as a missionary and sought counsel from a Benedictine monk who directed by St. John the Evangelist, told him that “his Indies were to be in Rome, where God would make much use of him.” That St. John the Evangelist was involved was not a surprise since Philip had the Apostles and other saints of Apostolic times as his patrons, and at some point St. John the Baptist appeared to him in a vision. In light of advice he received Neri settled down with some of his companions at the Hospital of San Girolamo della Carità.
In 1554 Philip met Fr. Ignatius of Loyola, then starting the Jesuits in Rome. The former sought advice from the latter, but there was a great affinity in both men and their work. Newman describes the remarkable similarities between the two: “It cannot be doubted that, while in theological traditions St. Philip was one with St. Dominic, in the cure of souls he was one with St. Ignatius. An earnest enforcement of interior religion, a jealousy of formal ceremonies, an insisting on obedience rather than sacrifice, on mental discipline rather than fasting or hair-shirt, a mortification of the reason, that illumination and freedom of spirit which comes of love; further, a mild and tender rule for the Confessional; frequent confessions, frequent communions, special devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament, these are peculiarities of a particular school in the Church, and St. Ignatius and St. Philip are Masters in it.
Like the early Benedictines Philip has no large plan for religious action for his followers. Placing special stress on prayer and meditation he allowed laymen into his fellowship. He did not wish to form a community, seek ecclesiastial recognition or to be called Father Superior. He taught his followers to look the epistles of the Apostles and the traditions of the monk John Cassian.
Newman recounts the description by Cesare Barronius (1538-1607), an early follower of St. Philip, and later cardinal, describe the meetings of Philip with his followers. “First, there was some length of time spent in mental prayer, then one of the brothers read a spiritual book, and during the reading the aforesaid Father commented on what was read. Sometimes he desired one of the brethren to give his opinion on some subject, and then the discourse proceeded in the form of dialogue. After this, he commanded one of them to mount a seat, and there, in a familiar, plain style, to discourse upon the lives of the Saints. To him succeeded another, on a different subject, but equally plain; lastly, a third discoursed upon ecclesiastical history. When all was finished, they sang some spiritual hymn, prayed again for a short time, and so ended. Things being thus disposed, and approved by the Pope’s authority, it seemed as though the beautiful form of the Apostolical assembly had returned, as far as times admitted.”
Newman comments that from the time of St. Benedict until then “there had been a broad line between the world and the Church, and it was very hard to follow sanctity without entering into Religion.” Now with these two men, Fr. Ignatius and Fr. Philip God was opening a religious path that reached men living in the world. In the last part of his sermon Newman will recount some St. Philip’s spiritual features and the instrument he used for reform: the Confessional.
We are thus reminded how God wishes to reach men and women living in the midst of others in society, and how he raises saints to bring this about, men like St. Ignatius and St. Philip. We are also reminded of the priority of the practice of prayer inherited from St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers. Lastly we foresee what will be discussed next: the secret of the sacramental grace of Confession that was at the heart of St. Philip’s reform.