Normally we celebrate a saint’s ‘birthday’ in Heaven, on the date of his departure from this world to the next. Two notable exceptions are the nativities of Our Lady and of St John the Baptist. This year Oratories around the world will also be marking the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of our holy Father St Philip Neri, whose heavenly birthday occurred on 26th May 1595, and whose earthly nativity took place in Florence on 22nd July, 1515.

We might well wonder what on earth St Philip would make of this world and of the Church half a millennium after his entry into it. Pray God we shall each of us be able to ask him face to face in Heaven. Meanwhile we can but speculate.  Familiarity with St Philip’s life however, may enlighten us on how best to engage with contemporary society in the spirit of our heavenly patron.

The context of St Philip’s astonishingly successful apostolate was one of the more tumultuous periods in the history of Christendom. The Florentine society into which he was born had recently experienced a presage of the cultural tension that would, within his youth, explode into ideological warfare and full-blown schism during the Protestant revolt. In 1498, the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola had been burned at the stake following his sustained campaign of denunciation against the corruption of the disgraceful pontificate of Pope Alexander VI. St Philip actually nurtured a lifelong devotion to Savonarola, drawing a halo on a portrait of the friar which he kept in his room at the Roman Oratory, and praying fervently to the Blessed Sacrament to prevent Savonarola’s writings being condemned in the 1560s.

Similar abuses and scandals to those against which Savonarola had railed in the 1490s were rife in Rome at the time of St Philip’s arrival there in 1534. To make matters worse, the Sack of Rome by the mutinous troops of the Emperor Charles V in 1527 had left the city a devastated vineyard. Palaces had been reduced to rubble, churches desecrated, priests and cardinals murdered in the streets. The consequent low morale of the clergy was exacerbated by the moral turpitude for which the Court of the Renaissance popes has become a byword. Many priests and prelates rarely if ever celebrated the Sacraments for which they had been ordained and went about the city disguised in secular dress. There are records of Roman clergy indulging in sorcery and other abominations.

Considering St Philip’s obvious affection for Savonarola, it might be expected that he would have adopted a similarly confrontational approach to the abuses that surrounded him on his arrival in Rome. During the scandalous pontificate of Pope Julius III, however, there was never any suggestion of St Philip raising his voice against the person of the Sovereign Pontiff. Whereas Savonarola had sent out gangs of his followers to shame Florentines whom they judged to be dressed opulently or immodestly, St Philip playfully told a young man with inordinately extravagant neckwear that he would give him a hug were he not afraid of being grazed by his collar, while a woman who asked if it would be sinful to wear slippers with high heels was told: “Just take care you do not trip.” Savonarola had encouraged artists to consign their own masterpieces to the flames of his ‘bonfire of the vanities’, while St Philip commissioned the great artists of his day to produce art that continues to inspire devotion. Savonarola held polyphonic music to be decadent and inappropriate for Christian worship. The most sublime music accompanying our liturgy in the London Oratory today is the fruit of St Philip’s encouragement of polyphonic composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria.

In other words, while Savonarola lambasted the evils of his society, St Philip had a gift for recognising what could be ‘baptised’ in the culture of his day and used for the edification of man and to the glory of God. In the words of Bl. John Henry 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.” His positivity and lightness of touch were so effective in gaining converts that he became known within his own lifetime as the ‘Christian Socrates’, thanks to his dexterity in drawing men away from worldliness and ever deeper into spiritual insight.

Pessimists might easily give up on our culture as one spiralling into self-destruction. St Philip would teach us rather to focus on its potential. There is around us a real hunger for spirituality, even if people are not sure where to look for it. There is a craving for authenticity, although the criteria used to evaluate what is authentic often seem to be hopelessly shallow. Five centuries after his birth into a world which by God’s grace he helped to transform, let us ask St Philip to intercede for our success in doing the same.

Fr Julian Large.