The life of a single Catholic can be solitary and lonely in even the best of times. Let’s face it, we’re not really in the best of times here in good old 2020.
Even without the social distancing and lock downs, many Catholics struggle to find genuine friendship with others who share and understand their Catholic faith.
As some areas begin to lift lock down restrictions, many of us might be gasping for a social life once again. If you’ve ever suffered because of a lack of connection with like-minded friends, you might need Saint Philip Neri in your life.
This great missionary and religious community founder was known to connect people and build community wherever he went.
Philip Neri’s early life and conversion
Philip Neri was born in 1515, Florence. He had three siblings, and his father was a lawyer. Philip’s mother was a member of the nobility.
Philip was raised in the Catholic faith and was instructed by Dominican friars at a famous monastery in Florence. Despite this upbringing in the Faith, it seems that Philip was not committed to giving his life wholly to God.
At age eighteen, Philip left the home of his immediate family to go live with his rich uncle Romolo in San Germano. Later, Philip would refer to what came next as his “conversion.”
Philip had gone to San Germano to assist with Romolo’s merchant business. Philip’s intent was to gain Romolo’s affection so that he might eventually inherit Romolo’s fortune. Though Philip did gain his affection, Philip’s plans soon changed.
One day, Philip had a mystical vision which changed his life drastically. He began feeling the Holy Spirit calling him to serve God and his church in a radical, wholehearted way.
Philip also lost his previous interest in riches and worldly status.
Philip’s journey to the priesthood
After his conversion experience, Philip went to Rome. There, he began working as a tutor for two boys. Philip guided these two boys in more than just academics. The two of them improved in other aspects of their life, including in their faith.
The experience began to prove that Philip had a particular skill with building human relationships and bringing out others’ good qualities.
For the first two years of his time in Rome, Philip lived alone. He devoted a lot of time to prayer and penance. Then, he began studying theology and philosophy.
Philip was a promising student, but he abandoned the idea of being ordained a priest after three years of study. Instead, he found himself drawn to the idea of evangelizing those around him in Rome who were no longer living out their faith.
Building community with conversation and humor
Philip began this task of evangelization by simply talking to people. He spoke to people on the street and went to places where others were gathered. He was skilled in starting conversations with others, and with gently leading them to amend their lives through these conversations.
It was largely through his joyful personality and sense of humor that Philip drew others to himself. He encouraged people to gather together for study, prayer, discussion, and enjoying music.
As the number of his followers grew, he began leading them to do good works. He would often bring them to hospitals to care for the sick.
After days of conversing and helping others, he spent his nights praying in church or in the catacombs.
In 1548, Philip established a confraternity, called the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity. This confraternity was for laymen who wished to participate in spiritual exercises together and serve the poor.
When Philip was thirty-four years old, his confessor began discussing the priestly vocation with him again.
Philip Neri’s work as a priest
Philip was ordained a priest in 1551. As a priest, one of his first works of ministry was to be available for confessions. He spent hours listening to confessions and counseling those who came to him. He often inspired others to lead a better life through his counsel.
Philip considered traveling to India for mission work as Saint Francis Xavier had, but he decided to stay in Rome since there was still much work for him to do there.
Soon, more and more people came to seek Philip’s counsel, and more priests came to assist him. A large room was built above the church where he served, for these many people.
This room came to be called Philip’s oratory. Philip and the other priests came to be called Oratorians.
Within a few years, the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory began. Philip created a simple rule for them, which included sharing a table and performing spiritual exercises. This organization was approved in 1575 by Pope Gregory XIII.
Someone gave a church to the congregation, but it had to be rebuilt because it was unsound and was too small to accommodate the large crowds. Many people contributed financially to the task of building a new Church, including St. Charles Borromeo and Pope Gregory.
When the new church was finished, the order was transferred there. But Philip remained working where he was for another seven years. He was almost constantly surrounded by crowds of people seeking his attention.
Reforming the church through authentic community
Phillip ministered to all who came to him. He was loved and respected by people of widely varying social classes, from the poor to the king and the Pope.
Philip’s greatest contributions to church reform came largely because he associated so closely with laypeople from all walks of life.
When he was eighty years old, Philip’s doctor told him that he was not in good health. Philip knew immediately that his death was near but he continued his work of hearing confessions for the rest of the day.
When he went to bed that night, Philip said, “Last of all, we must die.” He died that night around midnight.
Philip Neri is the patron saint of Rome, U.S. Special Forces, and humor. But a look at his life shows us that he is also a great saint to seek intercession from as we work on establishing close, beneficial relationships with others.
Saint Philip Neri, pray for us!