St. PhilipSt. Philip, A Different Type of Reformer

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.








Like this article?

Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

Leave a comment

We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

Our Books

About Cardinal John Henry Newman

Purchase Book

A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

Purchase Book

Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

Purchase Book

What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

Purchase Book

Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

Purchase Book

Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
About Newman
Fr. Peter Conley

Slopes, Popes and Newman

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

Read More »
Sermon Blog
David Warren

Endurance, the Christian’s Portion

Today, on Good Friday, we remember our Lord’s crucifixion, not as though it was a wrinkle in His otherwise peaceful earthly life, but rather as the focus and the pattern of His life.

Read More »
About Newman
Fr. Juan Velez

Fasting and Holy Week

In Fasting a Source of Trial, Newman reminds that we must not forget its main purpose: to unite ourselves with Christ.

Read More »