Tuesday, 26 May 2009

St Philip Neri and the Congregation of the Oratory

Today is the Feast Day of St Philip Neri (22nd July 1515-27th May 1595), Confessor. This post does not aim at completeness, as I know very little about this ''Apostle of Rome;'' it is just out of deep personal interest in relation to J.R.R Tolkien's spiritual formation at the Birmingham Oratory that I produce this inadequate post.

St Philip Neri was born in Florence to noble parents. Educated by the Dominicans in the famous convent of St Marco, it was here that he received his early religious impressions. As a young adult, he took a business appointment near Naples run by his uncle, who planned to make Philip his heir. However, in 1533, Philip underwent a ''conversion'' experience and went to Rome, penniless and without plan, to live in poverty. Living in an attic, he paid his rent by giving lessons to the sons of the landlord. It was during this period that he studied Theology and Philosophy.

After some time, he turned to an active apostolate. He talked to young men in public places, banks, shops. He won friends easily, and inspired by the exemplary piety of St Philip, they too turned to ascetic lives and to true devotion, tending the sick and visiting the many churches of Rome. In 1544, he became a friend of St Ignatius Loyola.

Philip was ordained priest in 1551 and went to live in a community of priests in San Girolamo della Carita. He would here spend long hours in the Confessional, absolving sins and directing souls in the ways of piety and penance. His daily meal consisted merely of bread and water, but he kept this penance hidden. At one time, he had a mind to become a missionary abroad, but a Cistercian told him that Rome was to be his place of Mission - hence he is often called the Apostle of Rome.

His active apostolate proved successful, and it later developed into the Congregation of the Oratory, so called because Philip with his disciples used an oratory built over the nave of San Girolamo, to which the faithful were summoned to prayer by the ringing of a bell. The priests there shared a common life, were obedient to Philip but did not take vows, nor renounce their poverty.

In 1575, the Congregation was approved by Rome, and Pope Gregory XIII gave the Oratorians the church of San Maria in Vallicella, which Philip rebuilt. The Congregation was very popular, and Philip would often receive people from all walks of life, Cardinals, foreigners, the poor. Philip retired as provost in 1593 in favour of Baronius, the Patristics scholar and later Cardinal. The last years of his life were on and off periods of sickness and recovery. At one point in 1594, whilst in a spasm of pain, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself appeared to St Philip and cured him. He died in 1595, giving his blessing to the Fathers of the Oratory. He was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1615, and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622.

In 1906, when J.R.R Tolkien was 14 years old, his mother Mabel died, a martyr for the Faith. John with his brother Hilary were then taken into the care of Fr Francis Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Here, he was expected (and usually did) serve Mass early in the morning before school, after which he would eat breakfast with the Oratorian Fathers. He would then cycle to King Edward's school where he'd spend all day reading Latin and Greek...

I don't know how well Tolkien knew St Philip Neri, but there were many resonances of that joyous saint, to whom God gave a ''heart of fire,'' in Tolkien's own spiritual life. He went to Mass daily for most of his life, only ceasing when the unfortunate aliturgical changes of the 1960s were brought in...Anyone who wants to know more about St Philip Neri ought to read the article here.

St Philip Neri, pray for us.

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