St Philip Neri, inspiration to St John Henry Newman, can inspire us all
May 26, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Today is the feast of St. Philip Neri (July 21, 1515–May 26, 1595), one of the most beloved saints of recent centuries and well known as the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory. St. Philip lived exactly during the eruption and spread of Protestantism, although his own energies were focused more on the conversion of Catholics at the heart of Christendom, leading to his nickname “Second Apostle of Rome.” Nevertheless, many centuries after his death, his Congregation would number among its famous members the former Anglican cleric and eventual cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–1890). In the second half of his life (1845 onward), Newman became a great promoter in England of the gentle spirituality of St. Philip and the model of the Oratorian life.
At some point in his later years, Newman began to compose a novena of prayers to St. Philip, which he never finished, having written texts for the first four days. These prayers were published after his death in a book of devotions edited by William P. Neville of the Birmingham Oratory. Here we find many touching expressions of Newman’s deep personal devotion to the one he had taken as his primary patron:
O my dear and holy Patron, Philip, I put myself into thy hands, and for the love of Jesus, for that love’s sake which chose thee and made thee a saint, I implore thee to pray for me, that, as He has brought thee to heaven, so in due time He may take me to heaven too.
Thou hast had experience of the trials and troubles of this life; thou knowest well what it is to bear the assaults of the devil, the mockery of the world, and the temptations of flesh and blood. Thou knowest how weak is human nature, and how treacherous the human heart, and thou art so full of sympathy and compassion, that, amidst all thy present ineffable glory and blessedness, thou canst, I know, give a thought to me.
Think of me then, my dear St. Philip, be sure to think of me, even though I am at times so unmindful of thee. Gain for me all things necessary for my perseverance in the grace of God, and my eternal salvation. Gain for me, by thy powerful intercession, the strength to fight a good fight, to witness boldly for God and religion in the midst of sinners, to be brave when Satan would frighten or force me to what is wrong, to overcome myself, to do my whole duty, and thus to be acquitted in the judgment.
Vessel of the Holy Ghost, Apostle of Rome, Saint of primitive times, pray for me. (“Four Prayers to St. Philip,” I, in Prayers, Verses, and Devotions [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989], 323)
Readers cannot but smile to find Newman, who was one of the most influential public figures, prolific writers, and effective spiritual directors of the nineteenth century, whose legacy lives on into the twenty-first century, accusing himself in the fourth prayer of having done “nothing” worthy of St. Philip and of lacking those very virtues in which the Oratorian was particularly outstanding:
Thou art my glorious protector, and, after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, canst do most for me in life and death. In thy labours thou didst follow thy Lord and Saviour, and in thy hidden life and hidden virtues, in thy purity, humility, and fervour, art nearest to Mary and Joseph of all saints. I have long dedicated myself to thee, but I have done nothing worthy of thee, and I am ashamed to call myself thine, because thou hast a right to have followers of great innocence, great honesty of purpose, and great resolution, and these virtues I have not. Thou, Philip, hast no anxiety about thyself, for thou art already in heaven, therefore thou canst afford to have a care for me. Watch over me, keep me from lagging behind, gain for me the grace necessary to keep me up to my duty, so that I may make progress in all virtues[.] ... Director of souls, Patron of thine own, who didst turn so many hearts to God, pray for me.
We can understand this as the holy humility of one who does not pride himself on any good but who sees rather where he has failed, where he is wanting, and how much he needs the powerful intercession of the saints and the grace of God to do any good at all.
Newman left us with a treasure trove of other reflections and prayers for St. Philip Neri. He completed a different “Novena of St. Philip” with meditations adapted from Bacci’s biography as translated by Father Faber (the text is available here), looking at the saint’s humility, devotion, exercise of prayer, purity, tenderness of heart, cheerfulness, patience, care for the salvation of souls, and miraculous gifts. Each meditation is accompanied by a prayer written by Newman. Attached to this novena is a Litany of St. Philip, which Newman wrote out in English and in Latin.
I find the final petitions especially noteworthy and fitting to pray today in honor of this great saint:
[St. Philip,] who didst observe chastity in thy youth, pray for us.
Who didst seek Rome by divine guidance, pray for us.
Who didst hide so long in the Catacombs, pray for us.
Who didst receive the Holy Ghost into thy heart, pray for us.
Who didst experience such wonderful ecstasies, pray for us.
Who didst so lovingly serve the little ones, pray for us.
Who didst wash the feet of pilgrims, pray for us.
Who didst ardently thirst after martyrdom, pray for us.
Who didst distribute the daily word of God, pray for us.
Who didst turn so many hearts to God, pray for us.
Who didst converse so sweetly with Mary, pray for us.
Who didst raise the dead, pray for us.
Who didst set up thy houses in all lands, pray for us.