ROME – The 16th century Saint Philip Neri is known for joyful holiness and for the foundation of the Congregation of the Oratory, but the legacy he left in Rome can still be traced today, even walking in the saint’s very footsteps.
Called the “Third Apostle of Rome,” Neri came to the city from Florence at a time of religious and cultural upheaval after the Sack of Rome in 1527 and, desiring to be a missionary in India, discovered he was being called to evangelize Rome instead.
Today remainders of St. Philip Neri’s life can still be found in the Eternal City – from the rooms where he started the Oratory, to the churches he prayed in, to the streets he walked.
One well-known tradition Neri began is the Seven Churches Pilgrimage. While still a layman, Neri noticed many people had lost sight of the joy of the Gospel, and therefore started leading “walks” to important churches in Rome.
These mini pilgrimages would include music and laughter, in keeping with the saint’s cheerful personality, and were a way of encouraging young people to discover the faith through visiting historically significant churches in the city.
Many people still go on this urban pilgrimage annually. “It is a way in which you can really grow in faith, not only through the beauty of the churches, but also through the history of the places,” said Carlo Munns, an author and expert on the saint.
Neri felt faith was like “climbing a mountain,” Munns told CNA. “Climbing a mountain by yourself is very dangerous, but if you can do it together, in a community, it’s better.”
He called the “saint of joy,” Munns said, “because he said that faith should be lived in hope and joy.”
“Yes, you need to repent, you have to understand and deeply live your faith, but always in joy.”
Catacombs of San Sebastiano
One of the significant places early in the life of Neri are the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, which are found outside the city center, beneath the Appian Way. Here Neri would go to pray during the night.
One night, about 10 years after he arrived in Rome, Neri had a “mystical experience in which a globe of fire entered his chest and exploded inside, ruining his chest, his ribs, and doubling the size of his heart,” Munns said.
“This experience marked him for life,” not only physically, Munns noted, but also because he “understood that the Spirit wanted him to spend his life for Rome.”
At the time, these catacombs were the only ones discovered in Rome, though now there are many more which can be visited by the public today, including San Sebastiano.
San Girolamo della Carita
Located near the famous Roman landmark of Campo dei Fiori, the narrow historic streets of the neighborhood of the church of San Girolamo della Carita are the very same the saint walked; and faded paintings of the saint can be spotted on random street corners in the area.
The church was built on the site of a devout Roman woman’s house where St. Jerome stayed in the 4th century when he was compiling the Vulgate – the principal Latin version of the Bible used by the Catholic Church.
After being ordained a priest in 1551, Neri came to live at San Girolamo. There he would meet many friends, among them St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is also where he informally started his congregation of priests, called the “Oratory,” which received papal recognition in 1575.
The saint’s rooms and private chapel, located above the church, can be visited with an advance reservation with the Sisters of St. Philip Neri, who maintain the church.
Another way to experience the life of the saint is through music, the rector of San Girolamo della Carita, Father Filippo Goyret, told CNA. Many churches in Rome put on beautiful concerts of classical music free of charge, including San Girolamo. Music, Goyret said, was very much “part of the spirit of St. Philip Neri.”
San Giovanni dei Fiorentini
From San Girolamo, a stretch of the historic Via Giulia connects to Piazza dell’Oro and San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This church was built starting in 1523 by Florentines living in Rome.
After he was ordained a priest, Neri served as rector at the Florentine parish for about a dozen years, though he continued to live down the street at San Girolamo.
In the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini is a side chapel dedicated to the saint, with a bust of his head and a painting depicting him with the Virgin Mary, as well as a simple, wooden cross he used to pray before.
Neri discovered the ancient cross at the church when he became rector, Munns said, noting that the saint considered the symbol of the cross to be vital to his relationship with Christ.
Munns explained that Neri had realized his mission in Rome was to follow the example of Christ in bringing healing to people in hospitals, and in Rome at the time “there was a lot to heal in terms of both physical and spiritual needs.”
“He took strength for this mission from this cross.”
From San Giovanni, just five minutes down one of the historic center’s main streets, lies the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella – commonly called “Chiesa Nuova,” or the New Church – where Neri spent the final 12 years of his life.
The church received the nickname of “New Church” because it was built on the site of a smaller parish church the Oratory had outgrown.
This church – the headquarters so-to-speak of all the Oratories of St. Philip Neri around the world – houses the saint’s mortal remains, which can be found in the Blessed Sacrament chapel to the left of the main altar.
Next to the church are the rooms where he lived, along with numerous relics, which can be visited on select Saturdays and by advance appointment.
Chiesa Nuova is also where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Neri in 1594. The vision is depicted in a large painting over his tomb.
This church is where Neri spent his final days, passing away in the early hours of May 26, 1595, after a day spent joyfully hearing confessions and saying Mass for the feast of Corpus Christi.
He was beatified in 1615 by Paul V and canonized by Gregory XV in 1622, fewer than 30 years after his death.
The saint is commemmorated every May 26 with a third class feast in the extraordinary form, and a memorial in the ordinary form.