When Martin Luther complained in the early 16th century that moral life in Rome was lax, he was correct. Other reformers who remained within the Church agreed. The main problem was how to overcome the spirit of worldliness that tainted Romans from the popes on down to the tradesmen. Nobody likes to be reformed!
What was needed was not just a series of new rules imposed from above, but a new spirit working up from below. God now gave to the Eternal City several saints who served as new yeast. The most outstanding was St. Philip Neri. Despite the fact that the apostles Peter and Paul were revered as founders of Roman Christianity, Philip came to be known as the “Apostle of Rome.”
Philip was not a native Romano. He was born in Florence, the son of a notary public. From childhood on, he had a winning way about him that attracted everybody. People even called the lad “Pippo buono” (“good little Phil”) He was slated for a business career: and he would, in fact, have proved a skilled salesman. But at age 18 he underwent a spiritual experience that completely redirected his career.
Converted totally to God, Philip, like many other Spirit-shaken persons in history, decided to become a hermit. But to do so, he went, not to a desert, but to the city of Rome. His “hermitage” was a little room under the eaves. There, nevertheless, he did withdraw as much as possible from social contacts for the next two years. He occupied himself with prayer and with forms of self-denial that were effective without being extreme.
When two years were up, Neri suddenly left his little cloister and plunged into the crowds that coursed through the streets of the metropolis. Using his talent for friendliness, he would pick up conversations with those he met, especially promising young men. He won their attention by his cheerful work, his banter, and even by clowning around. Then, when he had won listeners, he would ask, “Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?”
The program through which he led them, like a pied piper, included group pilgrimages to the catacombs and the “seven churches” of Rome; and ended up in the hospitals, where they volunteered to serve the sick.
About this time, Philip had one of his many mystical experiences. Praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he saw a globe of fire plunge into his mouth and enter his heart. With it came an intense emotionality that evidenced itself afterwards whenever he thought about God. As a matter of fact his physical heart was so enlarged from that moment that his ribs were broken.
Thus far, Neri was a layman. In 1551, urged by priests, he became a priest at age 36. Soon he and a few other reform-minded priests joined to form a society he called the “Congregation of the Oratory.” They scheduled regular group-devotions in the large church hall which they called their “oratory.” Crowds of people, from cardinals on down, gathered to give or listen to sermons, read church history and saints’ lives, discuss religious subjects, and pray. Music was also introduced, and the religious cantata called the “oratorio” probably derived its name from Philip’s “Oratory” program. Philip was available to all, and crowds called at his office. (One day an observer saw four cardinals visiting the saint at the same time.) His recommendation to all was frequent confession and daily communion.
Why did Philip Neri attract people as a magnet attracts nails? Partly because of his spontaneous challenges. Sometimes he would bully his pupils or box their ears, as a father might his son’s. Sometimes he would break their self-love by ordering them to do something absurd. But they didn’t mind. They recognized that he made closeness to God a social reality, and they kept coming to his services. By the end of his life, this “holy clown” had begun to alter the whole moral atmosphere of Rome.
Philip, you see, firmly believed that “the soul of reform is the reform of the soul;” and he communicated to his followers the optimistic view that they could “begin to do good.” Typical of his homely piety were his axioms “God tries no one too far.” and “He leaves everyone some bone to gnaw.” By his own example he convinced people that serving God should be and could be a joyful experience.
-Father Robert F. McNamara