Saint Philip Neri, a prominent figure of the Counter Reformation, is best known for reaching out to the laity in Rome, both young and old. At the time, outreach to the laity was not considered as important as it is today as the universal call to holiness was not yet widely understood. Philip Neri dedicated his life to being in the world, teaching the laity how they could live a life of holiness, and showing them that such a life was not reserved only for those in religious life. His heart for catechizing the laity, including the poor and the homeless youth of Rome, earned him the title of “Apostle of Rome”.
A Cheerful Heart
Saint Philip Neri’s charity stems from a heart of joy and good humor, in fact, he is the patron Saint of both! He lived with the attitude that “cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in the good life,” and, “a joyful heart is more easily made perfect than a downcast one.”
He was known for his practical jokes. Once, he showed up to one of his parishioner’s houses with a half-shaved beard. And when he knew he would be meeting with Cardinals he would put on his clothes inside out.
He was also known to give penances which included a small act of humiliation, like telling someone to wear a hair shirt over their clothes when confessing the sin of pride.
His lighthearted nature was due both to his innate carefreeness and his constant effort to maintain humility.
Neri was a man of great influence and he offered many gifts to the Church through his unique evangelization style.
In addition to the events he organized like spiritual talks and gatherings to sing hymns, he also organized walking pilgrimages.
The Seven Churches Pilgrimage
Neri invited neighbors, friends, and strangers to join him for his daily afternoon walk. While this was a casual stroll, he also organized a more formalized walking pilgrimage.
He started the Seven Churches Pilgrimage to divert attention away from the sinful behavior found at Rome’s Spring Carnivale. These pilgrimages were led with music and joviality and were an opportunity for the younger generation to encounter Christ more profoundly.
Through this walk, pilgrims discovered the richness of the Church by visiting and praying at some of the most historical and beautiful churches in Rome. It began on the Wednesday of Holy Week and stopped at the four major basilicas and three minor basilicas. It covered a total distance of roughly fifteen miles, and included a break for lunch to re-energize.
To this day, pilgrims continue retracing Neri’s footsteps, traditionally on Holy Thursday. Each stop of the pilgrimage represents one of the seven stations of the Via Dolorosa, the journey Jesus made on his way to Calvary.
Congregation of the Oratory
During his life, Neri also founded the Congregation of the Oratory. Oratorians are priests who live a life of prayer, teaching, and the Sacraments while also living and working in community.
Their apostolates outside the parish include ministries like teaching, spiritual direction, or chaplaincies.
Chiesa Nuova: The Heart of Saint Philip’s Ministry
In the middle of the 16th century, Neri founded the Confraternity of Pilgrims and Convalescents as a way to provide help for the many pilgrims making their way to Rome.
Pope Gregory XIII recognized this great work and, as a gift, he gave him the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Our Lady in the Little Valley). Neri then reconstructed the church and it became known as Chiesa Nuova, meaning “New Church”.
This church was the heart of Saint Philip Neri’s evangelization and it is located prominently on one of the most popular streets in Rome, the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.
Read on to find links for virtual tours of the style of his church, Chiesa Nuova, as well as works of art within the church.
Building in Baroque
While Saint Philip Neri had intended for Chiesa Nuova to have simple, whitewashed walls, it’s patrons decorated the church in full on Baroque style.
This style was widely popular during the Counter Reformation as artists worked fiercely to draw the congregation back to the Catholic Church by creating art that helped them move towards God through their senses, to show them that they really are a part of the story shown in the sacred art they see. Architecture, paintings, and sculptures emphasized drama and movement, never afraid to use bold, elegant, and golden embellishments.
Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ
Examples of Baroque architecture include Bernini’s marble statue, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (click here for a virtual tour of the statue) as well as the Chair of Saint Peter (click here for a virtual tour of the chair) which is located at the forefront of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Inside Chiesa Nuova is a chapel with Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, a beautiful example of employing Baroque style in painting. This image depicts the removal of Christ’s body from the Cross. Caravaggio painted using the chiaroscuro technique which is used to accentuate light and shadow. The background of this image is total darkness. But the characters appear to be lit with a spotlight, giving it a dramatic effect. Closing the gap between space and making you feel a part of the scene is key to the Baroque style. Caravaggio achieves this by painting the figures in a way that makes them look close enough to touch.
A few fun places to look around in this Church include the breathtaking frescoes by Pietro da Cortona. Cortona was commissioned to paint the ceilings of Chiesa Nuova. He had a gift for creating movement and harmony in his work. In the apse (above the altar) he painted the Assumption of the Virgin Mary between Angels and Saints which shows the Blessed Mother supported by a cloud which is held up by angels. It makes it appear as though she is being flown up to the dome of the church.
In the dome, he painted the Triumph of the Trinity, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit directly in the middle of the dome. This breathtaking use of movement in his paintings helps to “teach in pictures” what Mary alway does: leads us closer to God.
Reni’s Rendering of Neri’s Vision
Saint Philip Neri is buried in the Blessed Sacrament chapel of Chiesa Nuova, the church where he spent the final twelve years of his life.
He passed away on the Feast of Corpus Christi, but only after hearing confessions and celebrating Mass.
Taking On The Attitude of Saint Philip Neri
In these ever-changing days, Saint Philip Neri is a great person to turn to when trying to live life with a more joyful heart. A sense of humor is a breath of fresh air during these hard times.
Pope Francis said that “a bit of good humor is very good for us!” and suggests that we pray Saint Thomas More’s prayer, a prayer that he frequently prays with.
So with the attitude of Saint Philip Neri, let us pray Saint Thomas More’s Prayer for Good Humor:
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.
What is a simple joy that you have noticed in your life lately? Take time today to share that joy with a friend or family member.
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