1902 Encyclopedia > Philip Neri (Filippo Neri)

Philip Neri
(Filippo Neri)
Italian ecclesiastic
(1515-95)




PHILIP NERI (1515-1595). Filippo Neri, one of the most remarkable and individual figures amongst the ecclesiastics of the 16th century, was born at Florence, July 21, 1515, the youngest child of Francesco Neri, a lawyer of that city, and his wife Lucrezia Soldi, a woman of higher birth than her husband, and descended from a family whose members had held important public offices in the time of the republic. They were both devout persons, and Francesco was accustomed to intercourse with the monastic bodies in Florence, notably with the Dominicans. The child was carefully brought up, and displayed from infancy a winning, gentle, intelligent, playful, and yet obedient disposition, which earned him the title of the " good Pippo" (bon Plppo) amongst his young com-panions. He received almost his earliest teachings from the friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence, and was accustomed in after life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two amongst them, Zenobio de' Medici and Servanzio Mini. When he w.as about sixteen years old, a fire destroyed nearly all his father's property, and it became therefore expedient to seek some means of recruiting the family fortunes. His father's brother Romolo, a merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town in the Terra di Lavoro, near the base of
Monte Cassino, was wealthy and childless, and to him Philip was sent in 1531, to assist him in his business, and with the hope that he might inherit his possessions. So far as gaining Romolo's confidence and affection, the plan was entirely successful, but it was thwarted by Philip's own resolve to adopt the ecclesiastical calling, a determination at which he arrived in the course of frequent visits to a solitary chapel on a rock overlooking the Bay of Gaeta. In 1533 he left San Germano, and betook himself to Rome, where he found shelter, food, and protection in the house of a Florentine gentleman named Galeotto Caccia, to whose two children he became tutor, continuing in that post for several years, and pursuing his own studies independently, while also practising habitual austerities, and beginning those labours amongst the sick and poor which gained him in later life the title of " Apostle of Rome," besides paying nightly visits for prayer and medita-tions to the basilican churches of the city, and to the catacombs. In 1538 he entered on that course of home mission work which was the distinguishing characteristic of his life, and which bears in much of its method a curious resemblance to the manner in which Socrates was accustomed to set the Athenians thinking, in that he traversed the city, seizing opportunities of entering into conversation with persons of all ranks, and of leading them on, now with playful irony, now with searching questions, and again with words of wise and kindly counsel, to consider the topics he desired to set before them.

In 1548 he founded the celebrated confraternity of the Santissima Trinità de' Pellegrini e de' Convalescente, whose primary object is to minister to the needs of the thousands of poor pilgrims accustomed to flock to Rome, especially in years of jubilee, and also to relieve the patients discharged from hospitals, but still too weak for labour. In 1551 he passed through all the minor orders, and was ordained deacon, and finally priest on May 23. He settled down, with some companions, at the hospital of San Girolamo della Carità, and while there tentatively began, in 1556, the institute with which his name is more especially connected, that of the Oratory, after a plan he had formed of proceeding as a missionary to India was abandoned at the instance of shrewd advisers, who saw that there was abundant work to be done in Rome, and that he was the man to do it. The scheme of the Oratory at first was no more than a series of evening meetings in his own room, at which there were prayers, hymns, readings from Scripture, from the fathers, and from the Martyrology, followed by a lecture, or by discussion of some religious question proposed for consideration. It afterwards was developed further, and the members of the society were employed in various kinds of mission work throughout Rome, notably in preaching sermons in different churches every evening, a wholly novel agency at that time. In 1564 the Florentines, who regarded themselves as having a special claim upon him as their fellow-citizen, requested him to leave San Girolamo, and to take the oversight of their peculiar church in Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, then newly built. He was at first reluctant, but the pope (Pius IV.) was induced to enjoin him to accept, permitting him, however, to retain the charge of San Girolamo, where the exercises of the Oratory were still kept up. At this time the new society included amongst its members Cassar Baronius the ecclesiastical historian, Tarrugi, afterwards archbishop of Avignon, and Paravicini, all three subse-quently cardinals, and also Gallonius, author of a well-known work on the Sufferings of the Martyrs, Ancina, Bordoni, and other men of ability and distinction.





The Florentines, however, built in 1574 a large oratory or mission-room for the society contiguous to San Giovanni, in order to save them the fatigue of the daily journey to and from San Girolamo, and to provide a more _convenient place of assembly, and the headquarters were transferred thither. As the community grew, and its mission work extended, the need of having a church entirely its own, and not subject to other claims, as were San Girolamo and San Giovanni, made itself felt, and the offer of the small parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, conveniently situated in the middle of Rome, was made and accepted. The building, however, as not large enough for their purpose, was pulled down, and a splendid church erected on the site. It was immediately after taking possession of their new quarters that Filippo Neri formally organized, under permission of a bull dated July 15, 1575, a community of secular priests, entitled the Congregation of the Oratory. The new church was consecrated early in 1577, and the clergy of the new society at once resigned the charge of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, but Neri himself did not migrate from San Girolamo till 1583, and then only in virtue of an injunction of the pope that he, as the superior, should reside at the chief house of his congrega-tion. He was at first elected for a term of three years (as is usual in modern societies), but in 1587 was nominated superior for life. He was, however, entirely free from personal ambition, and had no desire to be general over a number of dependent houses, so that he desired that all congregations formed on his model outside Rome should be .autonomous, governing themselves, and without endeavour-ing to retain control over any new colonies they might themselves send out,—a regulation afterwards formally confirmed by a brief of Gregory XV. in 1622. Much as he mingled with society, and with persons of importance in church and state, his single interference in political matters was in 1593, when his persuasions induced the pope, Clement VIII., to withdraw the excommunication _and anathema of Henry IV. of France, and the refusal to receive his ambassador, even though the king had formally abjured Calvinism. Neri saw that the pope's attitude was more than likely to drive Henry to a relapse, and probably to rekindle the civil war in France, and directed Baronius, then the pope's confessor, to refuse him absolution, and to resign his office of confessor, unless he would withdraw the anathema. Clement yielded at once, though the whole college of cardinals had supported his policy; and Henry, who did not learn the facts till several years afterwards, testified lively gratitude for the timely and politic inter-vention. Neri continued in the government of the Oratory until his death, which took place on May 26, 1595, in the eightieth year of his age. There are many anecdotes told of him which attest his possession of a playful humour, united with shrewd mother-wit, often urging him to acts with a ludicrous aspect, but which were well calculated to serve his purpose of divesting religion of the hyper-professional garb it wore in his day, and bringing it within the area of ordinary lay experience. This, rather than the atmosphere of supernaturalism with which he is surrounded in the various biographies of him which have appeared, and that to a much greater degree than is common in similar writings, is the true key to his popu-larity, and to the fact that his name figures often in the folk-lore of the Roman poor, whom he loved so well and served so long. He was beatified by Paul V. in 1600, and canonized by Gregory XV. in 1622.

"Practical commonplaceness," to cite the words of Frederick "William Faber in his panegyric of Philip Neri, was the special mark which distinguishes his form of ascetic piety from the types accredited before his day. " He looked like other men. ... he was emphatically a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sport-ive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly -dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about liim, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it,—in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and a very various information." Accordingly, he was ready to meet the needs of his day to an extent and in a manner which even the versatile Jesuits, who much desired to enlist him in their company, did not rival; and, though an Italian priest and head of a new religious order, his genius was entirely unmonastic and unmediaeval; he was the active promoter of vernacular services, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer, and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private subjective devotion.

Philip Neri was not a reformer, save in the sense that in the active discharge of pastoral work he laboured to reform individuals. He had no difficulties in respect of the teaching and practice of his church, being in truth an ardent Ultramontane in doctrine, as was all but inevitable in his time and circumstances, and his great merit was the instinctive tact which showed him that the system of monasticism could never be the leaven of secular life, but that something more homely, simple, and everyday in character was needed for the new time.

Accordingly, the institute he founded is of the least conventional nature, rather resembling a residential clerical club than a monastery of the older type, and its rules would have appeared incredibly lax, nay, its religious character almost doubtful, to a Bruno, a Stephen Harding, a Francis, or a Dominic. It admits only priests aged at least thirty-six, or ecclesiastics who have completed their studies, and are ready for ordination. The mem-bers live in community, and each pays his own expenses, having the usufruct of his private means,—a startling innovation on the monastic vow of poverty. They have indeed a common table, but it is kept up precisely as a regimental mess, by monthly payments from each member. Nothing is provided by the society except the bare lodging, and the fees of a visiting physician. Everything else —clothing, books, furniture, medicines—must be defrayed at the private charges of each member. There are no vows, and every member of the society is at liberty to withdraw when he pleases, and to take his property with him. The government, strikingly unlike the Jesuit autocracy, is of a republican form ; and the superior, though first in honour, has to take his turn in discharging all the duties which come to each priest of the society in the order of his seniority, including that of waiting at table, which is not entrusted in the Oratory to lay brothers, according to the practice in most other communities. Four deputies assist the superior in the government, and all public acts are decided by a majority of votes of the whole congregation, in which the superior has no casting voice. To be chosen superior, fifteen years of membership are requisite as a qualification, and the office is tenable, as all the others, for but three years at a time. No one can vote till he has been three years in the society; the deliberative voice is not obtained before the eleventh year. Each house can call its superior to account, can depose, and can restore him, without appeal to any external authority, although the bishop of the diocese in which any house of the Oratory is established is its ordinary and immediate superior, though without power to interfere with the rule. Their churches are non-parochial, and they can perform such rites as baptisms, marriages, &c, only by permission of the parish priest, who is entitled to receive all fees due in respect of these ministrations. The Oratory chiefly spread in Italy, but a branch established in Paris by Cardinal de Berulle in 1611 had a great success and a distinguished history. It fell in the crash of the Revolution, but was revived by Pere Petetot, cure of St Roch, in 1852 ; while an English house, founded in 1847, is celebrated as the place at which Cardinal Newman fixed his abode after his submission to the Roman Catholic Church. The society has never thriven in Germany, though a few houses have been founded there, in Munich and Vienna.

Authorities.—Marciano, Memorie istoriche delta Congregazione delV Oratorio,
5 vols, folio, Naples, 1698-1702; Bacci, Life of Saint Philip Neri, translated by
Faber, 2 vols. Svo, London, 1S47 ; Crispino, La Scuoia di San Filippo Neri, 8vo,
Naples, 1675 ; Faber, Spirit and Genius of St Philip Neri, 8vo, London, 1850 ;
Agnelii, Excellencies of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, translated by F. A.
Antrobus, London, 1881; articles by F. Thelner in Wetzer und Welte's Kirchen-
lexicon, and by Reuchlin in Herzog's Real-Encyklopddie. (R. F. L.)







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