As rewarding as it is to study the life of a great saint, it is doubly rewarding to study the influences and connections among saints. Take, for example, Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890): his journey toward the Catholic priesthood in Victorian England was lit by the fire of St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), the exuberant Italian priest who re-evangelized Renaissance Rome. Philip’s feast day on May 26 offers us the opportunity to reflect on the kinship between two men separated by three centuries. The problems that confronted these evangelists in their respective societies were similar, and their thought and work present a most interesting spiritual relationship, an example of the communion of saints, which binds people together across time and place through Christ.
John Henry Newman began his career as an Anglican clergyman in an environment that was actively hostile to Catholicism. English law and social custom discriminated against Catholics; moreover, secularism was rendering religion, and particularly Catholicism, increasingly irrelevant. This was an age of great scientific advancements, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution being perhaps the most notable. Often underlying the new inquiries was the spirit of positivism—a philosophy that excluded speculation about ultimate causes in favor of positive facts and phenomena. Doubt and skepticism spread widely.
Newman’s discovery of St. Philip Neri played a key role in his conversion to the Catholic faith. After his conversion he founded in Birmingham a branch of the Oratory, the religious order that Philip had established. (Another Oratory was founded in London a year later in 1849 by fellow convert Frederick William Faber.) As a faithful Oratorian he maintained a devotion to Philip throughout his life, as is clear from a number of his writings. Newman no doubt perceived that the Renaissance world of Philip was in many ways a pre-echo of his own world. In other words, Newman’s environment was the end result of intellectual developments that started back in humanist Italy. As he later put it, “The scandal of deeds done in Italy then is borne by us in England now.”
The Renaissance, which by Philip Neri’s day had produced a wealth of artistic beauty and scientific achievement, was akin to a colorful tapestry that was developing frayed edges. While some humanists sought to assimilate classical learning into Christian culture, others fell away from Christian belief into a resuscitated paganism. Moreover, from the time of Philip’s birth thousands of people began to leave the Catholic Church for Protestantism; Protestant leaders were generally suspicious of the humanist movement because they believed it led people away from the plain message of the Gospel. The association of humanism with Italy, and hence papal Rome, was strong, and anti-Roman sentiment was fueled by corruption and lack of sanctity in the church leadership.
As a young priest Philip saw the fascination that the arts and sciences had on contemporary minds. Perceiving that the Renaissance was there to stay, he sought to channel it to Christian ends. This he did by founding the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of secular priests that held regular services of prayer, sermons, and religious music for the people. Philip drew upon a wealth of culture for the Oratory meetings. Members of the papal chapel choir were brought in to sing the polyphonic compositions of Palestrina, and popular laudi (songs of praise) were written expressly for use in the Oratory; the musical genre of the oratorio can be traced directly to the religious dialogues-in-music performed here. Just like the Renaissance painters, Philip took advantage of the beauty of nature: his outdoor pilgrimages to Rome’s Seven Basilicas drew crowds of people to relive the immediacy of faith of the early Christians, who worshiped in house churches, catacombs, and en plein air.
In one of his writings on Philip Neri, Newman spoke of him as the “saint of primitive times.” By this he meant that Philip, in the spirit of the Catholic Reformation, looked back to the simplicity, humility, and charity of the early church, in contradiction to the pride and self-satisfaction of Renaissance man (what Philip called the razionale) and the luxury and worldliness of many Renaissance churchmen.
But Philip realized that one need not discard human reason and its inventions in order to be seek holiness, for the razionale is not the same as ratio. Philip revered St. Thomas Aquinas and the intellectual tradition of the Church. The point was not to let the thirst for knowledge lead to intellectual pride, the sin of those Renaissance men who soaked up creation but forgot the Creator. Man derives his spiritual and intellectual powers from God alone. Human will, the passions, and the desire for knowledge—all good in themselves—must dwell within the house of faith.
Newman, likewise, called for the Church to embrace a wide array of culture and assimilate all branches of knowledge—but to have them all dwell under the protection of the crown science of theology. In his The Idea of a University he extolled the fine arts as “special attendants and handmaids of Religion” and bemoaned the “needless antagonism” that existed between religion and science. Following Thomas Aquinas, Newman believed in the essential unity of all truth and the integration of faith and reason. Further, he hoped that the Oratory would become a source of a cultural renewal for the Catholic Church in England, just as it had been in Philip’s Italy.
Newman, like Neri, contributed to a revival of what might be termed the imaginative resources of the faith. A brilliant writer and polemicist, he revived Catholic fiction and added new eloquence to the art of apologetics. Like Neri, he cultivated a personalistic approach to the faith, reconciling religious authority with individual conscience and intellectual assent to the needs of the human heart. When named a cardinal in 1879, Newman took as his motto Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”). The capacity to bring style, imagination, and indeed humor to Catholicism was much needed in Newman’s time, and it all arguably started in the humble upper room in Rome where Philip Neri held his Oratory.
I first discovered St. Philip Neri at the age of thirteen when researching saints for my Confirmation. This warm-hearted Italian who fostered music and art resonated with me and became my Confirmation saint. Later, at college, I took a class on John Henry Newman and was not only stimulated by the depth of his thought but delighted to discover the connection between him and the amabile santo. Their friendship is a beautiful illustration of the communion of saints—a doctrine which the Catholic Encyclopedia describes as the “corporate circulation of spiritual blessings through the members of the same family”—a relationship which bridges the gulf of time and space and which is an echo of our friendship with Christ.
Editor’s note: The painting above of St. Philip Neri (right) was painted by Carlo Dolci, circa 1645.