The Counter-Reformation Saints Club and its Natural Leader, St Philip Neri (video talk and text)

Saint Philip Neri was a friend and mentor of saints. He put his friendly and jocular personality at the service of the apostolate in which he played a part in the vocation of many saint friends in their work for the counter-reformation. His asceticism, love of the confessional and of the Holy Mass, his yearning for the missions and love for the poor were echoed by great saints who lived after him. His influence on the culture is something we can learn from today.

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Here is the text if you prefer just to read it:


[Text] The Counter-Reformation Saints Club and its Natural Leader, St Philip Neri

Laudetur Iesus Christus.
Praised be Jesus Christ.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

Fr Henry Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory, in his Miniature Lives of the Saints says that the life of St Bernadine was St Philip’s favourite among the saints and the last he read before his death. Fr Louis Bouyer on the other hand says that the last book he had read to him was the Fathers of the Desert. Perhaps we should make a distinction between reading or being read to; or perhaps St Philip inspired the two fathers with different information as a joke.

We can understand why St Philip loved St Bernadine when we think of the great gatherings of feuding renaissance factions listening to his sermons and then ending with an emotional reconciliation with the bacio di pace, the kiss of peace. The holy Franciscan’s withering attacks on unnatural vice would also have met with hearty approval from our Saint who could smell the vice of impurity in some of those who came to him for confession.

On the other hand, we can imagine the attraction which the Desert Fathers held for St Philip. His nights of solitude in the catacombs, his frugal diet and his devotion to the ascetical life all speak of lessons learned from those holy Fathers.

Yet we know that St Philip’s ascetical life was combined with the love of genuine friendship and holy allegria. His was an asceticism that could also participate in a wine-drinking contest in the interest of the apostolate.

St Bernadine's original bonfire of vanities, predated that of Savonarola (whom St Philip also admired greatly) by several decades. Those bonfires find an unexpected echo in the joy of St Philip’s companions who sang out “Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas” (vanity of vanities, all is vanity) as they tramped through Rome from Church to Church on pilgrimage.

In the history of the Church, there have been various ways of dealing with corruption and worldliness. Not the least of St Philip’s achievements was to trump the worldliness of Rome in has day with a vivid, existential demonstration of the joy of the Christian life of prayer, penance and charity lived without compromise. As St John Henry Newman put it:
“he perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher, but by means of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth” (The Idea of a University. IX.9)

The mentor and friend of saints

In his lifetime too, of course, St Philip was the mentor and friend of saints. Having such devotion to St Bernadine who preached devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, it must have warmed his heart to have seen the completion of the Church of the Gesu for the now thriving company formed by his friend St Ignatius.

St Ignatius would have loved St Philip to join the Jesuits, but said that his friend was like a Church bell, calling people to enter but remaining in his tower.

He was also a friend of St Francis Xavier and would have followed him to the missions but for the famous advice of his confessor “Rome will be your Indies”; advice for which I am sure all Oratorians are most grateful.

St Charles Borromeo came to his assistance when he was falsely accused. St Charles’ cousin, Federico (the Borromeo who features in Manzoni’s “I Promessi Sposi”) was, of course, one of St Philip’s most regular visitors.

He was the confessor of St Camillus de Lellis, the hardened soldier and inveterate gambler who had been converted to Christ by the Franciscans. St Philip advised him to become a priest, thereby indirectly being responsible for the founding of the Camillan fathers, and incidentally for a major contribution to care for victims of HIV and AIDS today.

He was also a friend of St Felix of Cantalice and organised with him a procession with a crucifix during the carnival at the conclusion of which a famous fellow Capuchin preached, effectively wrecking the carnival for that year. St Philip managed to get Giuseppe de Cesari to sketch a portrait of St Felix surreptitiously – a portrait that he cherished ever afterwards.

Then of course, Pope Benedict XIV recognised the heroic virtue of Baronius, St Philip’s protégé and successor as the superior of the Oratory, and author of the monumental Annales Ecclesiastici which St Philip asked him to write in reply to the anti-Catholic history, the “Magdeburg Centuries.”

It is rightly said of St Philip that he was cautious and reserved about falling into bad company. However he seems to have been quite adept at falling into very good company. Terrible as the reformation was for the Church, God raised up a new “great cloud of witnesses” in response, several of the most renowned being personal friends and confidantes of St Philip.

He is almost like the president of a saints’ club. “Almost”, not because there wasn’t a saints’ club – I think that is quite a good description of these varied characters in 16th century Rome – but because the title “President” would never have fitted his unique self-effacing and humble way of influencing others to follow Christ.

His character was different from the determined and necessary vigour of St Charles to ensure that the decrees of the Council of Trent didn’t become a dead letter, excommunicating offenders where necessary. He didn’t require of his company the military obedience that was necessary for St Ignatius to organise the counter reformation. And he didn’t go around Rome with a shirt of mail studded with spikes as did his friend St Felix.

He was radically different from all of them yet a cherished friend of each. He understood the importance of the unique and necessary contribution which God in his providence had called each of them to make to the life of the Church; but he didn’t find it necessary to imitate their particular characteristics, being a large enough and saintly enough character to bring his own unique and universal attractiveness to his apostolate in Rome itself.

His virtues echoed in many saints who followed him

I believe that the “saints club” did not finish at his death. We can discern in St Philip’s life an anticipation of the characteristics of many saints who were to follow him.

When we consider the effect St Alphonsus had in preaching on the last things so graphically, we may recall the tactic of St Philip Neri in getting worldly young men to consider graphic reconstructions of being in the tomb or conversing with a poor soul in hell.

The long hours spent in the confessional by St John Vianney remind us of St Philip’s habit of hearing 40 confessions before dawn and even cutting short his thanksgiving after Mass in order to hear confessions until lunchtime.

Reading the life of the little flower, dear St Thérèse, we find that she wanted to be a missionary and even became the patron saint of the missions without leaving her native France. She echoes the desire of St Philip to follow his friend St Francis Xavier.

St Francis de Sales’ understanding of the world, St John Bosco’s skill at motivating boys, St John Eudes’ love for the Blessed Sacrament, St Vincent de Paul’s practical love for the poor could all be found in the life of St Philip.

Fr Bouyer said that St Philip lived in an age “captivated by beauty, freed from all control, and suspicious of any restraint…” St John Henry Newman describes well his response to that age
“he preferred tranquilly 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.” (loc. cit.)
It has often been said of St Philip that he was, in the best sense “all things to all men”. Perhaps that why he has retained such affection from his many followers in the Oratories and those who come to know him through their work.

Our age has many characteristics in common with his except perhaps that it is captivated less by beauty and more by excitement and sensual pleasure. His uncompromising insistence on purity is necessary today more than ever.

His jocularity and good fun is important but should always be seen in conjunction with his asceticism and love of the Mass. It would be easy enough to promote a Catholic life that was superficial and witty. The genius of St Philip is not that he could play jokes on others – any fool can do that. St Philip managed to do so as a part of his apostolate which had the determined aim of saving sinners from hell and producing saints instead.

It is that which the Church needs in any time of reform. It needs it today and we need to listen to dear St Philip. He used to say “E quando vogliamo cominciare a far bene?” which we might render as “So when are we going to want to begin to do some good?”

Glory be …
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us

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