Today being the feast of St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), founder of the Oratorian movement, many in the English-speaking Catholic world will naturally think of persons and things influenced by the writings and works of this saint; Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and the Brompton Oratory in London come to mind, for example. Of course, there are oratory churches throughout the world, and in fact my beloved Barcelona has two. The first dates from the mid-18th century, and is located in a beautiful little square close to the city Cathedral. The second dates from the late 19th century, and was built by a relative of mine, using the earlier oratory as a model.
Yet putting aside for the moment the influence of St. Philip Neri after his death, it is helpful for us to consider who was working alongside him during his life on earth. The life of a saint does not take place in a vacuum: even those in the cloister are always aware of what is going on outside in the world, to some degree. More importantly, as I often like to point out in this blog, connections between historical individuals along a timeline can give us a better context for trying to understand a man and his times. St. Philip Neri lived in some pretty dark and confusing days, indeed – but fortunately he was not alone in his zeal to do something about it.
As a point of reference, it is interesting to note that St. Philip Neri was canonized on March 12, 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and his canonization took place on the same day as that of three extremely important Spanish saints. All three of them were contemporaries of St. Philip, and all worked in what has come to be called the Counter-Reformation movement: St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Although he never met St. Teresa, who of course spent her life in cloistered Carmelite communities in Spain, St. Philip did become friends with both St. Ignatius and St. Francis when he moved to Rome.
St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius Loyola most likely met for the first time at the Hospital San Giacomo for incurables just outside of Rome, where they and their respective followers were both ministering to the sick and dying. Over time they became good friends, and St. Philip encouraged a number of his own disciples who had a more missionary bent to become Jesuits. Indeed, St. Ignatius for quite some time had hoped that St. Philip himself would become a Jesuit, and this very well could have happened given St. Philip’s missionary zeal.
In fact, St. Philip was particularly taken with the plans of St. Francis Xavier, whom he had likewise befriended before the latter set off on his missionary journeys. He wanted to take St. Francis’ example and go out to India to preach the Gospel. Perhaps adding fuel to the fire of missionary zeal, St. Ignatius used to pass along the letters of St. Francis reporting back to Rome, which St. Philip and his companions would read and discuss together in community. However, the idea of going to far-off lands to spread God’s Word was ultimately abandoned when St. Philip sought the counsel of Prior Vincenzo Ghettini, at the Trappist Cistercian monastery in Rome, who told him that “Your India is to be Rome.”
I cannot help but think that St. Philip must have had to come to terms with some feeling of regret, which would be only natural. It is one thing to recognize we must seek to follow the Will of God, but it is another to accept that sometimes following His Will means giving up on a personal dream or goal we may have had for quite some time. That sacrifice or resignation is not easy for anyone, no matter how saintly they are. St. Philip cannot have known that his work in founding the Oratory movement would go on to have such a long-lasting, profound impact on the Church as a whole, and on the development of individual spiritual life in particular.
Fortunately for us, with the benefit of hindsight we can see how St. Philip Neri and his Spanish contemporaries were truly living gifts to the Church at a time when such gifts were sorely needed. As we all know the excesses of the popes and bishops coupled with the excesses of the Protestant reformers during the 16th century led to all kinds of nonsense. So it is perhaps paradoxical to observe that, during a time period in which so many criticized the Church for its shortcomings, many powerfully gifted men and women were raised up, and did something about it.
That groups such as the Oratorians, the Jesuits, the Descalced Carmelites, and so on, helped to steer the Church back onto the right path may not always have been universally appreciated at the time. Yet later they came to be recognized as having, through their work, fulfilled Christ’s promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Understanding where St. Philip Neri and the others fell along that timeline of change and upheaval, as well as the relationships they had with one another, gives us a better picture of how God works through His saints in both their period of history as well as in our own to preserve and further the work of the Church – no matter how dark one may perceive the period through which the Church is passing.