Apostle to Rome

It is embarrassing to review the condition of the Church in previous centuries. There is always something gone badly wrong, some “face-grabber” that makes any loyal Catholic wince behind his fingers. Just yesterday, in commemoration of Gregory VII, we were reminded of the mess in the later eleventh century. Or maybe it was just me, the history buff, consulting the Cambridge Mediaeval History to obtain a few clues on the saint-du-jour, as my travels had kept me away from the 1070s for a long time. Quickly stuffed my head with lay investiture scandals. I thought the 1970s were bad, but noooo.

Often, it doesn’t look as if the good guys can win, ever. Hildebrand, as he was called before his election in 1073 — a monk of Cluny — could see that the world was upside down. Very worldly princes were installing their agents in very spiritual offices for very material purposes, and the papacy was powerless to stop them. She was becoming a rather unholy Church. And when, as Pope, this bewildered monk started doing something about it, while courageously explaining how the world would look, rightside up, he was run out of Rome. He died at Salerno, 25 May 1085, about as beaten as a Pope could be. Yet within a generation, all sides, including the worst, were coming to accept, at least in principle, what this Cluniac had preached and published: that the Holy See is “set in the midst, between God and man, below God, but above men.”

Similarly, today, the Feast of Saint Philip Neri, is set against a dingy background. Five centuries later, and once again we find Rome in a mess. The mores of Roman society in the early sixteenth century were in some respects not different from what they are now: vulgarly self-serving, avaricious, godless, prurient, lubricious, and frequently malicious. But it’s worse when the factors are more intelligent: today’s dummies are probably less bad.

Two unprecedented Catholic movements arose in those days, so opposite that they define one another: the Jesuits of Ignatius Loyola, and the Oratorians of Philip Neri. The two men knew each other; indeed Philip did spiritual yeoman’s work in his early “apostolic” days, supplying the Jesuits with excellent converts, their hearts now on fire. Both embodied genuine reform — return to basics — but it can be embodied in many ways, and the variety is itself manifestation of the otherworldly breadth of Christ’s call. Each of these spiritual enterprises, strange novelties when they first appeared, are in retrospect inevitable expressions of Holy Church.

Saint Philip (1515–95), styled “Apostle of Rome,” set about his task with zero ecclesiastical ambition. He came from high society in Florence, had all the connexions he could want on his mother’s side; had been extremely well educated by the Dominicans at San Marco, there.

He’d been apprenticed in trade to a formidably rich but childless uncle, at San Germano near Naples, who was impressed with the lad’s smarts, his energy and shrewdness, and was eager to make him his heir. Philip had it made, in a world that respected money and pretty things perhaps more than we can imagine today. And he could always go to church on Sundays.

God works in mysterious ways. San Germano was near Monte Cassino: the young Philip was at first enchanted, in what I take for an “aesthetic” way, by the sight of her Benedictine monks, and the thought of their library. He’d visit their little mountain chapel, in a cleft of rock above the harbour at Gaeta; that’s where he was whenever he went missing. Outwardly disciplined and cautious, though hardly shy, he was nevertheless, within, a footloose pilgrim character, born for the open road.

Suddenly God put him on the road to Rome. He had some sort of vision, then; other visions, and demonic temptations, throughout his life, yet he glided through. Later, praying in the catacombs at Rome, a vision with miraculous physiological effects — an aneurism, or whatever it was, that left him with (quite literally) an enlarged heart, as from a Love that was exploding. Medical science can never explain such things, and neither can I.

He became a full-blown “religious nutjob” — with Catholic qualifications, my highest term of praise. Yet he had no specific calling, except, not yet twenty, for that road to Rome. His uncle let him go, with regret; he was off along it, like Peter and Paul before him.

For seventeen years he wandered the streets of that city. He was not starving, he could always have found money if he needed it, except, he’d cut himself off from his father’s generosity, and when shown a paper with his pedigree, he tore it up. His charm was such that at any moment he could have made his sandcastle, anyway. Rich old ladies adored him, aristocrats vied for his services as tutor to their less-than-illustrious offspring, for he was an inspiring teacher in almost any subject.

He had a room somewhere, donated by an admirer: the rope bed, the table, a couple of chairs, the rope to hang his clothes over. He lived on water, bread, and a few herbs; preferring to sleep on the floor.

Where, I suspect, books were piling up. I love him for this foible: he couldn’t help collecting books. Fancy-free in every other respect, he could be weighed down with thick volumes. (At his death, he left a considerable personal library, full of classics, by no means strictly religious.) Scholars were amazed at his knowledge of theology.

The idea of becoming a priest did not seem to cross his mind. At age thirty-six he was more or less forced into it, told to regularize his “institution” of secular priests, living voluntarily together.

Long before, he had gathered around him an impressive circle of young men, mostly well-born and of high culture, attracted to him as a beacon; and to his works, which included selflessly and recklessly caring for the old and ill, the crippled and hapless, the abandoned of all sorts. The combination of this with the literary and musical evenings; with his love of art, and writing of poetry in Latin and Italian; with his rollicking humour, and good-natured practical jokes — put him quite out of the ordinary.

And the “religiosity,” directed to the Mass, in mystically close attention. In the “seven churches” of Rome, in the catacombs, in any church around the corner, there he was, praying everywhere. Saints tend to be obsessive in this way.

Philip Neri was irresistible, lovable, in an extreme degree. He had the gift of bringing out the best in people; in almost everyone he met. He had the gift of standing foursquare in the world, and simultaneously beyond this world, without conflict. He was what he was — unique even in Catholic history — and in his own personal being, a kind of holy contagion.

He began to change the manners throughout the city of Rome, bottom to top and top to bottom — and yet without any formal remit or authority. He was truly an Apostle, but of a peculiarly modern kind: winning nominal Catholics back to Catholicism.

To me, Saint Philip, beloved friend and guide, is the exemplar of a saying of Jesus that puzzles most modern Bible readers: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This scratches our ears as droll indeed, for the burden seems to us impossibly heavy. But only because we are carrying other things. Put them down, and follow Christ, instead.

I am not going to tell the rest of this story, gentle reader may find it easily enough. My priest, Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory, in Parkdale here, has written a wonderful book on the topic: The Embodied Mysticism of St Philip Neri. It will appear one of these days from Angelico Press.

Place your orders now.