St. Philip Neri

Prayer to St. Philip Neri

O holy St. Philip Neri, patron saint of joy, you who trusted Scripture’s promise that the Lord is always at hand and that we need not have anxiety about anything, in your compassion heal our worries and sorrows and lift the burdens from our hearts. We come to you as one whose heart swells with abundant love for God and all creation, hear us we pray especially in this need…. Keep us safe through your loving intercession, and may the joy of the Holy Spirit which filled your heart St. Philip, transform our lives and bring us peace.

Reformation Rome

spnstory1Many movements begin with the vision of a charismatic figure. The oratory is no exception. In order to understand the Oratory’s unique character and contribution to the life of the Church., we need to understand its founder—St. Philip Neri (1515-1595).

Philip came to Rome from Florence in 1534: a date that places him in the center of one of the most turbulent times in the history of Catholicism. The Council of Trent, the Battle of Leponto and the Reformation where among the momentous events of his day. Philip lived in Rome when the Church was deeply embattled. There is near unanimous agreement that the Church had deep-seated problems and was in need of reform. Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on the doors of the University Chapel at Wittenberg in 1517. He became the figurehead of those reforms that split in two the Church in Europe. Many of Luther’s concerns about the fidelity of the Roman Church to the founding charter of Jesus and the early Church found an unlikely echo with Philip’s own life and mission in Rome. Philip’s little reformation helped renew the Church from within and thus preserve the vitality of the Roman Church. A drop out from school and business, a joyous, somewhat eccentric and loveable prankster, he was a most unlikely reformer and his method of reform, if we can call it that was equally improbable. Like Luther, he shared a love and desire for the greater accessibility of the Scriptures, especially by the laity. He promoted the study of Church history and a return to the vital simplicity of the early Church as found in the Acts of the Apostles. Philip’s prayer group used the more accessible vernacular rather than the Ecclesiastical Latin that was common in his day for instruction and preaching. But as Luther sought structural reform Philip sought the path of inner conversion. As Luther went out, Philip went within. As Luther was swept up into political reform with European princes eager to disentangle their constituencies from the control of the powerful Papacy, Philip instead insisted on personal reformation, and the conversion of hearts that occurs when individuals come together in order to live the simple joy of the Gospel. It was this mix of fidelity and joy that eventually helped bring even members of the Medici controlled College of Cardinals and Roman Curia into Philip’s circle of easy influence. The famous English )Oratorian, Cardinal John Henry Newman, coined the phrase: “Cor ad cor loquitor” (heart speaks to heart) to summarize this distinctively Philippian characteristic.

St. Philip’s “Picnic”

spnstory2When in the spring of 1553, Pope Julius III permitted the re-introduction of the custom of celebrating Spring Carnivale to Rome, he unleashed amusements and carousing that made the Eternal City a place rife with shameful behavior and degradation.

At the same time, St. Philip Neri, who liked to take some exercise following the afternoon prayer in the Oratory, began to assemble around him friends, neighbors and strangers for an informal walk. These “walks” were unstructured and with few participants. But St. Philip soon realized that he ought to organize a healthy, spiritual antidote to the crass and vulgar habits of the Carnivale. He organized what has become known as the “Pilgrimage to the Seven Churches” which were visits to the most venerated churches within and about the boundaries of the city walls of Rome. In a few years, after the Carnivals had ceased again, what had begun as a small group enlarged to sometimes two to three thousand participants.

Because of the far-reaching appeal of St. Philip, these groups were a motley mix of classes and vocations. They spent the whole day in each other’s company singing, praying, eating and walking as a spontaneous community that, sadly, became the object of suspicion.

Philip drew up an itinerary that included visits first to St. Peter’s Basilica, then St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Sebastian’s, St. John Lateran, Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem, St. Lawrence-Outside-the Walls and finally St. Mary Major. At each church, there would be prayer, hymn singing and a brief sermon by Philip. They began their pilgrimage in the dark before dawn, stopping at St. Sebastian’s for Mass and communion. Simple meals of eggs, cheese, bread, fruit and wine were pre-arranged and shared abundantly. During these “picnics”– true to Philip’s aesthetic – musicians would play and singers would perform. There was to be fun during these spiritual pilgrimages because Philip understood how well people responded to God when they were surrounded by the elevating company of affectionate, happy human beings.

spnstory3But the very success of these deeply spiritual and harmless excursions incurred envy. It was not the first time Philip was embroiled in controversy. It must be remembered that Philip’s innovation of having laity – even children – preach at the Oratory’s prayer meetings was something considered highly questionable. Added to this practice, the spectacular picnics brought the charge that he was creating a political party, or a new religious sect. Some considered humble Philip Neri a dangerously ambitious man.

In 1559, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Virgilio Rosario, sent for him. The Cardinal’s tirade went something like this: I am surprised that you are not ashamed of yourself, you who affect to despise the world and yet go about exciting numbers of people to follow; all to win favor with the multitude, and to work your way, under the pretext of sanctity to some prelacy or other! (cf..: Theodore Maynard, Mystic in Motley). The Cardinal then withdrew Philip’s faculties for hearing confessions and ordered him not to accompany the crowds. Although some had joked that Philip was simply a glutton and a fool, Cardinal Rosario felt all of Philip’s activities needed investigation. Philip defended himself and pleaded only innocence and the best of intentions.

Soon after his encounter with the angry Vicar, Cardinal Rosario died suddenly of a stroke. Some biographers see in this precipitous death the hand of God and Philip’s vindication. Pope Paul IV eventually satisfied himself that there was nothing to reprehend in the Oratory’s exercises or “picnics.” Indeed, the official investigating reports about the Oratory indicated that it was a remarkable union of fervor and soundness.

The Pilgrimage of the Seven Churches so naturally begun by St. Philip has endured since the sixteenth century. Even today, pilgrims to Rome follow the path laid out by our founder who is still called the Apostle to Rome. His spiritual picnics enlivened the people of his day to a holy journey and their lasting benefits still do.

St. Philip and Federico Barocci “Painter of Oratorian Piety”

Federico Barocci’s Visitation painted for the Chiesa Nuova 1583-1586
Federico Barocci’s Visitation painted for the Chiesa Nuova 1583-1586

It is well-known that St. Philip Neri prayed with great mystical intensity. It is recorded that when he celebrated Mass, he would become absorbed so deeply in his prayers that they could last for hours. So deep was his ecstasy at the Holy Sacrifice that he was seen to rise, weightless, in the spiritual embrace of the Crucified Savior. He also loved to pray on the rooftop of his residence in Rome. He cherished the night sky and the panoply of stars to inspire his joyful prayers.

He did, however, spend long hours inside the Oratory’s Mother Church in Rome, officially named Santa Maria in Vallicella. Since the 16th century, it is has been called simply the Chiesa Nuova, the New Church. Like the neighboring Jesuit Church of the Gesù, the New Church was begun under the influence of Prince Alessandro Farnese. But due to the influence of a new patron, Cardinal Pierdonato Cesi (1522-86), and his architect Giacomo della Porta it came to look like the Oratory’s former home, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

“Unlike the Gesù, the decoration of the Chiesa Nuova was ruled by corporate decision and therefore more complicated choices. Whereas the Gesù resulted in great stylistic plurality, the interior of the Chiesa seems to avoid this by the sheer quality of its altarpieces commissioned by the best artists in Rome and abroad.” (cf. Ian Verstegen, Renaissance Quarterly 56, 2003).

In this beautiful architectural jewel, St. Philip would hear confessions for long periods of time. Cardinals and beggars alike sought his warm heart and understanding but firm counsel. From his confessional, which still exists within his private rooms at the Chiesa, flowed much reform and reconciliation.

St. Philip had a great deal to say about the decoration of the Church. He understood that faith is inspired by Beauty, which is an attribute of God. He and the first members of the Oratory commissioned artists to adorn the Church with splendid works. Peter Paul Rubens and Caravaggio were to contribute to the Chiesa Nuova. (The Rubens paintings are still seen there, while Caravaggio’s Deposition is now in the Vatican Museums.)

But the painting to which St. Philip Neri paid most attention and that became the focal point of much ecstatic prayer was painted by an artist whom St. Philip chose personally. Federico Fiori di Urbino, known as il Baroccio or Barocci (1535-1612), was commissioned in 1582/3 to paint the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.

Sketches for the Visitation commissioned in 1583 for the Chiesa Nuova
Sketches for the Visitation commissioned in 1583 for the Chiesa Nuova

Scholars indicate that Barocci came to the attention of the Oratory when his painting Madonna del Popolo was unveiled in the city of Arezzo in 1579. That painting made Federico popular and famous. It is more likely that Barocci’s spiritual lifestyle of Christian optimism, however, appealed greatly to Philip Neri.

Although a native of the city of Urbino, Federico came to Rome around 1555 and then again from 1560 to 1563, when Philip Neri was already well known in the city for his spiritual meetings and works for pilgrims. Barocci’s affinity with the Oratorians in Rome can be traced back to his relationships with Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) and Pope Clement VIII (1535-1605). Cardinal Borromeo, a disciple of Philip Neri and benefactor of the Chiesa Nuova, oversaw four concurrent commissions to Barocci.

Pope Clement’s commission was also achieved with the Oratorians’ influence. The first commission from the Oratorians came after the family of the wealthy Francesco Pizzomiglio obtained the rights to the Chiesa’s chapel. The family was given the choice of two artists, but Barocci was chosen despite his well-known reputation for slowness.

When it was ultimately delivered, the Oratorians were pleased with the work. It was reported that lines formed outside the Chiesa for three days after the unveiling of the painting. The painting is typical of Barocci’s method of combining monochrome background with bright masses of drapery in the foreground. Our Lady is embraced by Saint Elizabeth while St.Zachariah looks out suddenly, St. Joseph stoops to pick up his bag, and an unknown woman on the right looks on. It is a combination of sweetness with realism. Although the faces of Mary and Elizabeth are idealized, there are many realistic details: the onlooker’s chickens, her straw hat, the donkey on the left and the brass pot on the ground. After Philip’s death, the painting’s original setting was changed in 1598 when all the chapels were rebuilt and the original light that shown on the painting was obscured.

It was reported during the canonization process for St. Philip that witnesses saw Philip in the chapel where he performed miracles or was seen in ecstasy. It is recorded that he performed his personal devotions before the painting, sometimes spending hours lost in rapture. In the famous 1622 biography of Philip, the author Father Bacci writes: “He [Philip] would stay in the chapel of the Visitation where he pleasurably and willingly contemplated the image by Barocci.” Italian historians Baglione and Bellori record similar accounts. These stories of Barocci and Philip Neri are unique in art history: The pious attention given this painting by Saint Philip Neri caused Federico Barocci to receive the title “Painter of Oratorian piety.”

He received a second commission from the Oratorians in 1593 for The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. However, given Barocci’s exhaustive preparations and slow working style, the painting was not completed until 1603. It was received with great acclaim. The Oratorians wrote to Cardinal Cesi in Todi of “not only our own but all of Rome’s incredible applause and satisfaction.” A rare letter of thanks from Barocci survives. Although his work continued to hold interest for the Oratorians and he received commissions from throughout Italy, it is Barocci’s Visitation, still to be seen today in the Chiesa Nuova, which was St. Philip’s favorite.