St. Philip Neri & the Oratorian Charism

Many movements begin with the vision of a charismatic founder. The Oratory is no exception. In order to understand the Oratory's unique character and contribution to the life of the Church, we need to understand its founder - St. Philip Neri (1515-1595).

Saint Philip in Reformation Rome
Philip's Early Days in Rome
Philip Founds the Oratory
From Difficult Times and Tensions: Joy
The Middle Way of Reform
Practical Charity
Emphasis on the Laity

Saint Philip in Reformation Rome

Philip came to Rome from Florence in 1534: a date that places him in the center of one of the most turbulent times in the history of Catholicism. Philip lived in Rome when the Church was deeply embattled. There is near unanimous agreement that the Church had deep-seated problems and was in need of significant reform. Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on the doors of the University Chapel at Wittenberg in 1517. Many of Luther's concerns about the fidelity of the Roman Church to the founding charter of Jesus and the early Church found an unlikely echo with Philip's own life and mission in Rome. Philip's little reformation helped renew the Church from within and thus preserve the vitality of the Roman Church.

Philip's little reformation helped renew the Church from within and thus preserve the vitality of the Roman Church.

Joy and practical charity seemed to follow wherever Philip went. Unlike Luther, Philip Neri was not a university professor, steeped in scripture, history and theology. His theological training was adequate but hardly extensive, and he became a priest only reluctantly at the age of 36.

He valued the role of the lay person in the Church and felt unworthy of the sacrament of ordination. Philip felt he learnt more attending to the sick pilgrims in the hospitals and visiting with people in the streets of Rome then he did in a classroom. And it was this very practical charity that he encouraged again and again in all who came to him for spiritual direction.

It was vitally important to Philip that those concerns and resulting actions found voice and form within the Church of Rome. To this day St. Philip is called the Apostle of Rome, so effective was his reform from within. When you consider that Ss. Peter and Paul could also lay claim to the title of Apostle of Rome, you can glimpse something of the power of Philip's joyous and practical Christianity. Some claim that in fact he was the one to fully convert the souls of Roman people to Christianity.

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Philip's Early Days in Rome

Philip was just a young man of 19 when he came to Rome. A dropout from school and business, he wasted no time learning how to pray and live the ascetical life of a contemplative. By the time he was 21 he had begun to live as a hermit, sleeping in one of the many churches of Rome. He loved solitude and often spent nights alone in the then recently rediscovered catacombs on the outskirts of the papal city. As the evening sun was setting Philip could be seen walking out of Rome along the Via Apia Antica to take up his nightly vigil at the catacomb of San Sebastiano.

Some claim that in fact he was the one to fully convert the souls of Roman people to Christianity.

It was during one of these all-night vigils that Philip experienced a profound conversion. Only towards the end of his life did he reveal that he felt the Holy Spirit descend upon him as a ball of flame, entering his mouth and lodging in his heart. Philip attributed to this experience his burning love of God. Ever afterwards he complained of being hot and would often be seen with the top buttons of his cassock open.

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Philip Founds the Oratory

Philip's appealing personality eventually attracted a group of like-minded laymen. At first they met in his private rooms at the church of San Giralamo and then in a small prayer room (an oratory) above the nave of the church. With Philip they shared the scriptures and took turns preaching to and for each other. They used popular musical forms and adapted them to form sacred songs. The music gave rise to such composers as Palestrina and Vittoria. In time the numbers of people who came to his meetings grew so large that they were conducted outdoors.

Philip, a son of the Republic of Florence, brought democratic ideas to the practice of Catholicism in imperial Rome. Perhaps Philip had resisted becoming a priest for so long because the hierarchical aspect of ordination would be unavoidable. Even so, within the very structures that he approved for the governance of the Congregation of the Oratory he insisted on a unique parity between brothers and priests, something quite unheard of in his day.

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From Difficult Times and Tensions: Joy

The Oratory was sufficiently different, and successful, to be a cause of some intense suspicion. Twice Church authorities suspended Philip's activities at the Oratory and both times he is said to have suffered it quietly, even joyfully. Philip also had to endure the suspicion of others because of the success of his Oratory. Among the complaints against him where that he could not be serious enough because there was too much laughter heard in his church; that he must be watering-down doctrine because the crowds were too big; and, that the involvement of the laity and the emphasis on Scripture were too Protestant.

Philip, a son of the Republic of Florence, brought democratic ideas to the practice of Catholicism in imperial Rome.

Philip's example of fidelity had at its heart a tension. On the one hand he strove to remain faithful to Church tradition and magisterial authority. On the other he encouraged following the spirit of the early Gospel as it took shape in his own heart and as it blew through the lives of those he sought to serve within his small neighborhood in Rome. Showing us how to hold these two hands together is perhaps his greatest legacy.

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The Middle Way of Reform

Philip was part of the "Counter-Reformation" effort of the Roman Church to earnestly clean up many of the inadequacies Luther and others targeted. But the Protestant revolt also had the effect of making some within the Church hierarchy insist on very clear and definite boundaries to what was, and what was not, orthodox belief and practice. To put it simply there was a tension between the voices that seem to insist on absolutely no change and those who appeared to their opponents to want to change everything.

Philip's promotion of the gifts and ministry of lay Oratorians was a way to enrich and renew the Church from within.

Philip managed to steer a middle path ("via media") between these shores taking on the best of both movements while avoiding the respective pitfalls. He did so by following an incarnational approach that emphasized the personalized values, which emanate from a converted (loving) heart. His example was one of living the Gospel oneself so that others would be attracted to do the same. His promotion of the gifts and ministry of lay Oratorians was a way to enrich and renew the Church from within.

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Practical Charity

Philip's love and concern was not just spiritual, but practical. He was often heard to say: "When shall we begin to do good?" One story recalls how he came into church to once again find a rich man on his knees, head bowed reverently, praying piously. Philip's response was to send the man to the hospital to take care of the sick. "God is pleased with your prayers," Philip said, "but he would be even more pleased with your care of his poor and needy." The care of the sick and hospitalized, and attending to the needs of the many pilgrims to Rome, (caring for as many as 500 a day) were activities he participated in and encouraged in others.

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Emphasis on the Laity

For Philip the life of the Oratory was about the work of worship and charity, not about status or title. He is said to have been named a cardinal twice and both times to have playfully thrown away the red hat that was given to him. Perhaps because of his long and dedicated life as a layman going about the business of charity and prayer and his reluctance to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Philip built within the structure of the Oratory a collaborative and representative constitution. Unlike some other religious orders in the Catholic Church, where the laity are the "third order" (after the priests - first order - and the religious brothers and sisters - the second order), in the Oratory the laity are the first, and the priests and brothers exist only to serve the laity who are therefore rightly the first order.

In an Oratory, the laity are the 'first order', and the priests and brothers exist only to serve the laity.

The Oratory eventually enjoyed considerable success, even in Philip's day. A friend and contemporary of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, Philip resisted strenuously attempts to expand the Oratory by turning it into another international religious order. He did not stop other Oratories from forming but he did ensure that each remained independent and autonomous, for he believed strongly that an Oratory should be a home (or as he said a "nido") rather than just a place where priests and brothers lived. The community of familiar faces, as Newman put it, was to be the hallmark of the Oratorians' religious life. An Oratorian becomes an Oratorian not so much by joining an organized congregation but by living with a particular group of people in a particular place for life.

Philip, therefore, insisted that Oratorians not take religious vows as others do. He felt that if someone did not want to stay an Oratorian then he should be free to leave: the only bond for them should be the bond of mutual charity and affection. Such a family structure is not possible if the numbers within the community are too large. While this insistence on smallness tends to make the Oratory's existence somewhat fragile it also preserves its ability to heal and vitalize community life. There is no moving away from a problem in an Oratory; the members must learn to solve their problems together.

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