Philip Neri was born in 1515 in Florence, Italy, during a time of intensive reform and vigorous renewal in the Church. The Council of Trent convened on three occasions during his lifetime. He went to Rome in 1532 where he lived in extreme poverty, but devoted himself to visiting the sick and helping poor children.
With his engaging style, he evangelized young Florentines of the banking and merchant class. He arranged informal prayer and discussion groups. In 1548 he established an organization to provide hospitality for pilgrims to Rome and to care for shut-ins.
At the urging of his confessor, Philip at age 36 was ordained a priest. He soon earned a reputation for being an outstanding confessor and spiritual director; gifted with being able to pierce the pretenses and illusions of others and to help them see the truth about themselves. He received penitents and visitors from all walks of life, from cardinals to the very poor. Many were attracted by the warmth of his personality, his wit, unpretentiousness and cheerfulness.
Some of Philip’s followers became priests. Five of them lived together with him in community and began to share a common life under his direction. The group eventually grew and became the Congregation of the Oratory, which was approved in 1575. They are best known in England through their most famous member, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Philip and the Oratorians introduced a new style of personal spirituality for the laity, and encouraged them to give public testimony to their faith, put on theatrical productions and compose and play songs with religious themes.
Philip suffered a stroke on May 25, 1595 and died the next morning. He was canonized a saint in 1622, although many church leaders considered him a saint even in his lifetime. He was known as the “apostle of Rome” for evangelizing and reviving a spirit of faith among the city’s populace. His many friends included Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales. He is the patron saint of the city of Rome. His feast day is May 26.
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