Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, a community of Catholic priests and lay brothers. At the age of 18, he travelled to live with a wealthy relative to learn, and possibly inherit, the family business. But soon after arriving, he experienced a mystical vision that he called his Christian conversion, which dramatically changed his life.
Having lost interest in the family business, he travelled to Rome to live for and serve the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church. He studied for three years at Saint Augustine’s monastery, but then decided not to be ordained. Instead, he worked for the conversion of souls by stirring up conversations with people, which eventually led them to further studies, prayer, and the enjoyment of music. He would then encourage them to move beyond these endeavors to serve those in need, especially the sick.In 1548, with the help of his confessor, Philip founded a confraternity for poor laymen to meet for spiritual exercises and service of the poor, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity.
Finally, at the age of 34, Philip’s confessor succeeded in returning to priestly formation and he was ordained a deacon, and finally a priest, in 1551. Philip went to live with his confessor and other priests at San Girolamo and carried on his mission, mostly through the confessional. Philip spent hours sitting and listening to people of all ages. Sometimes Philip arranged informal discussions for those who desired to live a better life. He spoke to them about Jesus, the saints and the martyrs. He had many pilgrims come to visit him; so much so that other priests gathered to help him, and a room was built above the church in San Girolamo for their ministry. Philip and the priests were soon called the “Oratorians,” because they would ring a bell to call the faithful in their “oratory.”
Today’s first reading from the Apostle Saint James encourages us to pray in suffering, sing praise in times of joy, and call on the priests in our illness, praying for healing and forgiveness of sins. That certainly rang true in the heart of Saint Philip Neri: prayer and an encounter with our Lord was a primary concern for him. Today our Liturgy and the saint we are memorializing encourages us to step up our prayer life, and in the words of our Psalmist, may our prayer “rise like incense” before our God: the One who regards our prayers to be as pleasing as the most beautiful music.