Saint Philip Neri: A Guide to Chastity

Richard Whinder FAITH Magazine July-Aug 2007

St Philip Neri, (1515-1595) founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, and often called the ‘Second Apostle of Rome’, has many titles attributed to him. Two of these – ‘Flower of Purity’ and ‘Gentle Guide of Youth’ – are especially relevant to our current theme

In the Novena he composed in preparation for the Feast of St Philip, Cardinal Newman wrote: ‘Philip, well knowing the pleasure God takes in cleanness of heart, had no sooner come to years of discretion, and to the power of distinguishing between good and evil, than he set himself to wage war against the evils and suggestions of his enemy, and never rested till he had gained the victory. Thus, notwithstanding he lived in the world when young, and met with all kinds of persons, he preserved his virginity spotless in those dangerous years of his life’. What was Philip’s secret – and how did he encourage the young disciples who flocked to him in Rome to follow a similar path of life?

Firstly, there can be no doubt that Philip gained mastery over himself by prayer. Although in his story there is no ‘moment’ of conversion, as in the lives of some saints, we know that as a young man he gave a lot of time to prayer – notably at the remote and rocky shrine of Gaeta, between Rome and Naples. Later, while still a layman in his early years in Rome, he spent whole nights in prayer, often in the catacombs. It was here, on the eve of Pentecost 1544, that a famous miracle took place – Philip saw the Holy Spirit enter him in the form of a ball of fire, and come to rest in his heart (after his death, an autopsy showed that the heart had actually been enlarged by this event, and the ribs forced outward). While this, obviously, was an extraordinary grace, it shows the power andimportance of prayer to Philip’s whole existence.

Prayer, then, was the indispensable foundation of Philip’s method for training his young followers in virtue – nothing will bear fruit without prayer. His disciples became known as ‘Oratorians’ (which means ‘men of prayer’), his first meetings were known simply as ‘the Oratory’, and Philip himself was tireless in encouraging his friends to pray, and devising new ways to make this easier for them. ‘A man without prayer is like a beast without reason’, he once said. The forms of prayer he used were various, and well-adapted to the needs of his ever-expanding band of followers. Sometimes he encouraged them in very direct and intimate prayer – the early meetings of the Oratory were characterised by informal sermons, delivered sitting, the reading of scripture and saints’ lives, and reflectionupon them. But Philip could also use magnificence and outward splendour to impress young minds with the truth and beauty of God – his followers were among the first to introduce the ‘Forty Hours’ devotion into Rome, and he used the talents of the great composers Palestrina and Anerio (among others) to enrich the liturgies held in his church. Moreover, it is worth noting that although an innovator in some ways, using methods unique at the time, Philip always drew on the oldest sources of Christian devotion – indeed, Newman dubbed him ‘Man of primitive times’, who would have been at home among the earliest Christians or the Church Fathers. At a time when heresy was raging throughout Christendom, the exercises of the Oratory were always faultlessly orthodox. This was confirmed by an eventwhich took place in the year 1570. At that time, some mischievous persons had spread a rumour that heterodox doctrine was being preached at the Oratory. This came to the ears of Pope St Pius V, always very zealous for true doctrine, who appointed two learned Dominican priests to go and investigate. St Philip’s disciple, Antonio Gallonio, records what happened:

'The Dominican fathers accordingly went to the Oratory several times a week, and applied themselves to investigating and recording everything that was going on... They observed what Philip’s spirit was, what sort of doctrine he taught, what was his way of life. Along with the crowds they listened to the discourses, and took careful note of the manner of the delivery and the purport of what was said. They found themselves lost in admiration for Philip’s facility in speaking, his earnestness and his amazing confidence… in every question that was put to him he replied so appositely that he never failed to hit the target, which absolutely astounded the Dominicans.

Impressed by this, they gave the Pope a better report of the Oratory and of Philip’s learning and devotion than had ever been delivered before, and assured him that they found everything in order’.

We should also note that when at one time, due to some confusion, Philip was ordered to cease some of his spiritual exercises, he did so obediently.

Along with prayer Philip taught his disciples to have frequent recourse to the sacraments – a counsel which seems obvious today but was less so in the Sixteenth Century, when many Catholics only Confessed and Communicated once a year. Philip encouraged frequent Communion among his followers, but, crucially, also insisted on frequent Confession – not least because Confession is a means to humility, and Philip, like many of the saints, taught that humility and purity almost always go hand in hand. Many of his disciples confessed to him daily, far more frequently than they went to Communion. Indeed, along with saints such as the Curé d’Ars and Padre Pio, St Philip deserves to be recognized as a true hero of the Confessional. Newman says of him: ‘he gave himself up entirely to hearingconfessions, exclusive of every other employment. Before sunrise he had generally confessed a good number of penitents in his own room. He went down to into the church at daybreak, and never left it till noon, except to say Mass. If no penitents came, he remained near his confessional, reading, saying office or telling his beads. If he was at prayer, if at his meals, he at once broke off when his penitents came.’ This, surely, was one of his key tools in encouraging purity and chastity among his followers. They had ready, immediate access to a confessor who was kindly, wise and gentle, and having made a good Confession could benefit fully from all the graces offered in Holy Communion. It was a simple, but powerful, formula, novel in its day, but widely imitated in the centuries tofollow.

Prayer and the sacraments – these, it should really go without saying, were the foundation of St Philip’s ‘youth work’. But his concern for souls took him further. Philip was particularly known for his cheerfulness, and for his ability to instill that virtue in others. To quote Newman again: ‘He could not bear any one to be downcast or pensive, because spirituality is always injured by it: but when he saw anyone grave or gloomy he used to say “Be merry”. He had a particular and marked leaning to cheerful persons’. Philip realized that excessive introspection and anxiety (especially among the young) can often lead to despondency and depression and, very quickly, to vice of all sorts. He was determined that his followers should be joyful. Thus when one of his disciples, the future Cardinal,Baronius, proved incapable of preaching on any subject other than the pains of hell, Philip refused to allow him to preach on spiritual subjects at all, and made him teach Church History instead (Baronius went on to become one of the greatest Catholic historians ever, as well as a candidate for Beatification). Allied to this very human concern for cheerfulness in his followers was a healthy stock of common sense. Just as worry and anxiety can easily lead a young person to seek an outlet in forbidden pleasures, so boredom and idleness are often the conditions which make virtue more difficult. To this end St Philip worked hard to invent diversions which would keep his charges occupied, especially at what he considered the most dangerous times – the long sultry Roman afternoons, and theperiod of the pre-Lenten carnival, when Renaissance society gave itself up to a distinctly un-Christian preparation for Lent (and if anyone doubts that Sixteenth Century Rome could be fully as immoral as our own times, let him read the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a great artist, but far from a good man). The particular diversion which Philip devised for use during the Carnival was a pilgrimage on foot to the ‘Seven Churches’, the seven most ancient and important basilicas of Rome, a tour which lasted an evening and a day. This pilgrimage was an ancient devotion, into which Philip and his followers breathed new life. The pilgrims sang and prayed as they walked between the churches, and recreated themselves half-way along with a picnic lunch accompanied by light music. The devotionof the Seven Churches, in fact, brings together various of the themes we have already discerned in looking at St Philip’s methods: it was distinctively Christian and prayerful, allowed for healthy exercise and good spirits alongside its primary purpose of pilgrimage, and was a practical way of getting ordinary young men out of danger’s way at a time of potential spiritual hazards.

So what conclusions can we draw about St Philip’s way of encouraging purity and chastity? Firstly, he made proper use of the supernatural weapons given us in faith – prayer and the sacraments. He was scrupulously orthodox, whether in matters of faith or morals – never flinching from demanding the highest standards in his young disciples and certainly never compromising on the content of Catholic morality. At the same time, he was compassion and gentleness itself in dealing with sinners, and made some of his greatest converts through the Confessional. ‘Not to have pity for another’ he said ‘was a forerunner of a speedy fall in ourselves’. Secondly, he took a well-rounded, thoroughly holistic view of the Christian life. Purity and chastity were not to be seen, nor sought for, in isolationfrom the other virtues. Through his own joyful spirit, and by encouraging that virtue in others, through healthy friendships and innocent diversions, Philip laid the groundwork for souls to advance in virtues of every kind. He did all this in a society which, while far less secular than our own, was almost equally corrupt, and there is no reason why his methods cannot be applied in a similar way today. Indeed, we should ask the prayers of St Philip that the young people of our own time (and those who guide them) may have the courage, grace and humility to follow the same path of discipleship that he taught. We may end our article where we began it, by quoting from the Novena of Cardinal Newman:

Philip, my holy Patron, who wast so careful for the souls of thy brethren, and especially of thy own people, when on earth, slack not thy care of them now, when thou art in heaven... Be to us a good father; make our priests blameless and beyond reproach or scandal; make our children obedient, our youth prudent and chaste, our heads of families wise and gentle, our old people cheerful and fervent, and build us up, by thy powerful intercession, in faith, hope, charity and all virtues’.

Faith Magazine