St. Philip was born in Florence in 1515. Born to an affluent family, he forfeited a promising career in business with his uncle in order to move to Rome in 1535. While in Rome as a layman, Philip would immerse himself in prayer during the night at the catacombs and during the day would care for the sick in the overcrowded hospitals and the pilgrims. Philip developed a following in Rome who wanted to imitate his example and was reluctantly ordained to the priesthood in 1551. Philip and this group that he attracted would “meet informally for prayer, discussion, and recreation together, before going off to minister to the needy.” They became known as the Oratorians and helped to re-evangelize Rome.
While we celebrate St. Philip Neri’s feast today it is helpful to examine a few reasons as to why his charism is as relevant today as it was in the 16th century. Firstly, St. Philip’s ministry was characterized by its relational approach. He evangelized one on one. During the Carnivale in Rome which brought much disgraceful behavior with it, St. Philip went out in the city and organized events to counteract the Carnivale. He was willing to go out and meet people were they were at. He first built relationships with people and then invited them into a deeper relationship with Christ. He was able to achieve this and build so many relationships because his ministry was characterized by joy and humility. For St. Philip, joy and humility were both integral parts of the Christian life and inseparable from one another. He repeatedly said, “Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life. Therefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.” People were attracted by his joy and authenticity and wanted to experience it for themselves.
Also, St. Philip who was only ordained later on life, emphasis the role of the laity in the Church. He believed holiness was attainable for the laity and was a proponent of frequent communion and confession, himself spending hours a day in the confessional. The laity were not treated as a third order, but as a first order. The Oratory existed to serve the needs of the laity who were living in Rome.
St. Philip Neri’s example should inspire us to always joyfully seek a deeper relationship with the Lord. He reminds us that we are called to holiness and he is a model for the New Evangelization. St. Philip understood we will not attract people to Catholicism if we do not exhibit the joy that is a result of our relationship with Christ.
Conor Boland is a College Ministerial Intern for One Bread One Cup, at Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology and is an undergraduate at The Catholic University of America.