We celebrate today one of the most joyful and idiosyncratic – the two are not unrelated – of saints, Philip Neri, (+1595), the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory named after him. Born and raised in the great city of Florence, which has produced a whole host of luminaries from Dante to da Vinci to Galileo, Philip was originally destined for the mercantile trade, and consequent riches. But a conversion experience at the age of 18 – a formative time in any young person, as they are emancipated from their parents – made him realize the transitoriness of such earthly gains. As he would later say to a similarly ambitious young man years later, as he listed all the things he wanted to accomplish: ‘E pui’? – ‘And then?’. Eventually, the ‘and thens’ led to our judgement at the end of our lives, which will be based on love, the charity we have shown to God and neighbour.
Philip made his way to Rome (the city of which he was later to be called the ‘second Apostle’), where he lived sort of as a tutoring hermit, devoted to prayer – his winning personality and charisma evinced the great joy that should be a hallmark of our Faith, and he led many souls to God.
He at first wanted to be a missionary, and give his life for the Faith in pagan lands, like Francis Xavier, but his confessor more or less ordered him to become a priest and evangelize the centre of Christendom, the eternal city of Rome. Philip would lead others in prayer, in visiting the sick and a rich and vivid sacramental ministry; sure enough, other priests gathered around him. They lived in community, with a regular prayer life, taking turns preaching, fostering beautiful liturgy and music – Palestrina was a spiritual disciple of Saint Philp. What we now know as the ‘Oratory’ grew around Father Philip, now with houses now throughout the world. John Henry Newman joined the Oratory when he converted to Catholicism, who brought it to England, whence it came to Canada and America.