Newman and St Philip Neri
By Fr Daniel Seward
The Oratory of St Philip Neri was the single most important thing for Newman. When he first became a Catholic, Blessed John Henry had originally considered founding an entirely new congregation. Yet by February 1846, Newman had abandoned this idea, and was full of enthusiasm for the notion of founding an Oratory in England. Although it seems that he had heard of St. Philip while he was still an Anglican, Newman doesn’t appear to have known much about him. As he got to know the character of St Philip better, Newman said how much Philip’s light-hearted playfulness reminded him of his Anglican friend John Keble.
In December 1846 Newman made his first visit to the Roman Oratory – the Chiesa Nuova. He was impressed by the way in which Philip’s joyful presence was remembered, and by the similarity of the Oratory to the then structure of an Oxford college – men living, praying and eating in common, with a common purpose.
John Henry Newman and his friends went on to make a noviciate in Rome, before being ordained priests and then returning to England with a brief from Pope Pius IX to found the English Oratory. This took place at Maryvale (near Birmingham) on the feast of Candlemas 1848.
Newman’s insistence on the family nature of an Oratory, shows that he had no sympathy for the reforming views of his novice master. As he told the Fathers in Birmingham in 1878, on the thirtieth anniversary of the foundation of the English Oratory; An Oratory is a family and a home; a domestic circle, as the words imply, is bounded and rounded.
One of the points of similarity between Newman and St Philip is their gift of friendship. St Philip is the ‘third apostle of Rome’ because he transformed the Eternal City from a lukewarm, nominal Catholicism to being the beating heart of the counter-Reformation. He did this by his personal influence, especially in the confessional. Philip made friends, and gradually his influence, through them, permeated all Rome. Newman too worked by personal influence, that ‘bond of connection’ with others. Just look at the thousands of individual letters he wrote to all manner of people. Newman said that Oratorians fish for souls not with a net, like the great missionary and preaching orders, but with a line, one person at a time. Friendship is the key to Newman’s priestly ministry.
In his youth, Philip Neri had been inspired by the letters of St Francis Xavier and other missionaries to think of offering himself as a preacher in the ‘Indies’. However, a holy monk at Tre Fontane told him, “Rome shall be your Indies.” From that time he never left the City. Like Philip, Newman had a tremendous sense of place. Before 1845, he had considered the snapdragon on the wall of Trinity to be a symbol of his permanence in Oxford. Now that he had been uprooted from there, he found the stability offered by the Oratory. He stressed that the Congregation is the home of the Oratorian, and observes that the Italian Fathers even make an equivalent of this very English concept by using nido to describe their rooms. The Oratorian, we are told, is to have ‘comfort’; and there should be no ‘meanness, poverty, austerity, forlornness, (or) sterness’; either in the Church or in the House. That this commitment to stability was real is shown by the fact that Newman persevered to his death in Birmingham, even though he considered London to be more of a centre. We see again Newman’s belief that each Oratory must have its own character when he says that,
“The Oratory is thus emphatically a local institution; it acts on and is influenced by the town in which it is found, it is the representative of no distant or foreign interest, but lives among and is contented with its own people.’
The Oratorian does not have the glamorous role on the world stage that others may have; instead he contents himself with ‘influence’;. The ‘slow fever’; of the Oratorian life was grasped by Newman as it was by Fr Giulio Giustiniani, who used to say that a priest of the Congregation should die on one of three wooden places: the step in front of the Altar, in the Confessional, or in the Chair used to preach in the Oratory.
Oratorians live together as ‘secular’ priests – without vows but following a Rule. For Newman, the absence of vows was not merely a curious feature or irrelevant quirk, but it was central to the whole spirit of the Congregation. He argued that, in some senses at least, a voluntary obedience is actually superior to a vowed one, since it demands greater perseverance. Instead of laws, it is Charity that holds an Oratorian community together:
‘Instead of vows or forcible impositions, they held it was enough to have Christian love, and they cultivated that love, towards God and man and each other, in the spirit of that great Apostle to whose inspired writings St. Philip had so special a devotion.’
Newman quoted the maxim Vita communis mortifcatio maxima – the common life if the greatest mortification, to explain how the Son of St Philip can become holy by living with others, accepting their faults, and bending himself to the mind of the community.
In a world that changes so fast, and where people often lack identity and stability, John Henry Newman’s example of faithfulness to his vocation, and his permanence in Birmingham to the end of his life, are a witness to the power of St Philip’s spirit of joy and friendship. The twenty-thousand people who lined the streets for Newman’s funeral procession in 1890 knew that he had become one of them, and that he had never abandoned them. It was as a Son of St Philip that John Henry reached that holiness of life. He shows us that this perfection is possible for each of us if we are faithful to our vocation.