Five hundred years ago this month, our holy father St Philip Neri was born in the early hours of 22nd July, the feast of St Mary Magdalene. Just hours later the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity were infused into his soul in Baptism. In the wretched heat and humidity that afflict Florence in high summer it was prudent to administer the Sacrament without delay.
Our Lord tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard which when it is sown is the tiniest seed in the field, but when grown it becomes a tree in the branches of which the birds of the air come and make their nests. The seed that was planted in St Philip' heart in the famous Baptistery of St John, and which germinated and took root during his childhood in Florence, would eventually flourish into a mighty tree in Rome. His own room was the nest (he actually called it his nido) in which the fledgling first Oratory would become the base for an apostolic mission that would earn him the glorious title Apostle of Rome.
As other Oratories began to be established, it was St Philip's wish that each house remain autonomous, and this status is preserved to this day in the Church's law. Nevertheless, every Oratory is to be like a branch that is animated and nourished by that supernatural life that was nurtured in St Philip's nido half a millennium ago. The purpose of an Oratory in the plan of salvation is to give encouragement and direction to anyone who seeks spiritual refreshment in the shade of its bough. An Oratory is supposed to provide a spiritual home, usually in an urban context, in which friendship with Our Saviour is nurtured under the gentle guidance of St Philip and the protection of Our Lady.
St Philip came to be listed among the saints of the “Counter Reformation”. Mention of this authentic and glorious renewal in the life of the Church conjures up images of the Church rolling out all the engines of spiritual warfare. Established religious orders were to be reformed or suppressed; new congregations would be equipped with spiritual and intellectual artillery to defend the Faith and reclaim territories lost to schism; Jesuits were to be deployed around Europe to engage heretics in public dispute, or despatched to risk life and limb recruiting converts from the heathen New World. In contrast to this, St Philip's own mission within the Church Militant took place entirely on the home front. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, "He put away from him monastic rule and authoritative speech as David refused the armour of his king....His weapons should be but unaffected humility and unpretending love. All he did was to be done by the light and fervour and convincing eloquence of his personal character and his easy conversation. He came to the Eternal City and he sat himself down there, and his home and his family gradually grew up around him." In other words, it was through personal contact and friendship that St Philip contributed to the renewal of the spiritual life of Rome that was essential to the success of the Catholic Reformation.
Under the tyranny of sentimentalism that reigns supreme today, there is a danger that friendship can take on a shallow meaning and be understood mainly in terms of feelings and utility. To understand how friendship was so effective in St Philip's apostolate, it is necessary to appreciate the classical and Christian traditions in which he had been formed by the Dominicans at San Marco, and through his later studies in Rome. In the Aristotelian understanding, friendship is a "settled disposition" - a habit, based on virtue. It involves the recognition of an intrinsic good in the other, and a reciprocated commitment to serve that good and make it flourish. In a truly virtuous friendship, the parties will also work together for the common good. Whereas for Aristotle such friendship is only ever possible between equals (he said that the one good we must never desire for our friends is that they become gods, because if our wish were fulfilled then we should immediately forfeit their friendship), St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on Sanctifying Grace makes even friendship with God a reality. This is because God actually shares His Divine Life with us through Baptism.
St Philip excelled in making men's hearts receptive to this vocation to live as friends with God. His joyful influence fostered an ambience in which his spiritual children found pleasure in each others’ company and came to assist each other in living virtuously. A shy cobbler whom St Philip spotted sitting at the back of the Oratory was summoned to the front and hugged like a long-lost child returning to a family that included cardinals and princes. A watch-seller on the verge of bankruptcy found himself suddenly overwhelmed by eager customers at the Oratory, where St Philip's friends had been primed to empty their purses and buy every watch and clock he could provide. This infectious spirit of generosity and charity was fostered by visits to attend to the poor in the Roman hospitals. Even those who came to the Oratory with unworthy motives were eventually captivated by the "Winning Saint", and some found themselves taking Holy Orders or religious vows as a result.
This school of Christian friendship was the magnificent mustard tree which developed from that seed of the Kingdom planted in St Philip's heart half a millennium ago at his Baptism on 22nd July 1515. By his intercession, and under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin, may it continue to flourish in the Oratory today and for centuries to come.
Fr Julian Large