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PHILIP NERI (FILIppo DE) (1515-1595)

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Originally appearing in Volume V19, Page 390 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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PHILIP NERI (FILIppo DE) (1515-1595), Italian churchman, was born at Florence on the 21st of July 1515. He was the youngest child of Francesco Neri, a lawyer of that city, and his wife Lucrezia Soldi, a woman of noble birth, whose family had long served the state. He was carefully brought up, and received his early teaching from the friars at San Marco, the famous Dominican monastery in Florence. He was accustomed in after life to ascribe most of his progress to the teaching of two amongst them, Zenobio de' Medici and Servanzio Mini. When he was about sixteen years old, a fire destroyed nearly all his father's property. Philip was sent to his father's childless brother Romolo, a merchant at San Germano, a Neapolitan town near the base of Monte Cassino, to assist him in his business, and with the hope that he might inherit his possessions. So far as gaining Romolo's confidence and affection, the plan was entirely successful, but it was thwarted by Philip's own resolve to take holy orders. In 1533 he left San Germano, and went to Rome, where he became tutor in the house of a Florentine gentleman named Galeotto Caccia. Here he was able to pursue his own studies under the guidance of the Augustinians, and to begin those labours amongst the sick and poor which gained him in later life the title of "Apostle of Rome," besides paying nightly visits for prayer and meditations to the churches of the city and to the catacombs. In 1538 he entered on that course of home mission work which was the distinguishing characteristic of his life; somewhat in the manner of Socrates he traversed the city, seizing opportunities of entering into conversation with persons of all ranks, and of leading them on, with playful irony, with searching questions, with words of wise and kindly counsel, to consider the topics he desired to set before them. In 1548 he founded the celebrated confraternity of the Santissima Trinity de' Pellegrini e de' Convalescente, whose primary object is to minister to the needs of the thousands of poor pilgrims who flock to Rome, especially in years of jubilee, and also to relieve the patients discharged from hospitals, but still too weak for labour. In 1551 he passed through all the minor orders, and was ordained deacon, and finally priest on the 23rd timely and politic intervention. Neri continued in the government of the Oratory until his death, which took place on the 26th of May 1595 at Rome. He was succeeded by Baronius. There are many anecdotes told of him which attest his possession of a playful humour, united with shrewd mother-wit. He considered a cheerful temper to be more Christian than a melancholy one, and carried this spirit into his whole life. This is the true secret of his popularity and of his place in the folk-lore of the Roman poor. Many miracles were attributed to him alive and dead, and it is said that when his body was dissected it was found that two of his ribs had been broken, an event attributed to the expansion of his heart while fervently praying in the catacombs about the year 1545. This phenomenon is in the same category as the stigmata of St Francis of Assisi. Ned was beatified by Paul V. in 1600, and canonized by Gregory XV. in 1622. " Practical commonplaceness," says Frederick William Faber in his panegyric of Neri, was the special mark which distinguishes his form of ascetic piety from the types accredited before his day. " He looked like other men . . . he was emphatically a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it—tn a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and a very various information." Accordingly, he was ready to meet the needs of his day to an extent and in a manner which even the versatile Jesuits, who much desired to enlist him in their company, did not rival; and, though an Italian priest and head of a new religious order, his genius was entirely unmonastic and unmedieval; he was the active promoter of vernacular services, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer, and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private devotion. Neri was not a reformer, save in the sense that in the active discharge of pastoral work he laboured to reform individuals. He had no difficulties in respect of the teaching and practice of his church, being in truth an ardent Ultramontane in doctrine, as was all but inevitable in his time and circumstances, and his great merit was the instinctive tact which showed him that the system of monasticism could never be the leaven of secular life, but that something more homely, simple, and everyday in character was 'needed for the new time. Accordingly, the congregation he founded is of the least conventional nature, rather resembling a residential clerical club than a monastery of the older type, and its rules (never written by Neri, but approved by Paul V. in 1612) would have appeared incredibly lax, nay, its religious character almost doubtful, to Bruno, Stephen Harding, Francis or Dominic. It admits only priests aged at least thirty-six, or ecclesiastics who have completed their studies and are ready for ordination. The members live in community, and each pays his own expenses, having the usufruct of his private means—a startling innovation on the monastic vow of poverty. They have indeed a common table, but it is kept up precisely as a regimental mess, by monthly payments from each member. Nothing is provided by the society except the bare lodging, and the fees of a visiting physician. Everything else—clothing, books, furniture, medicines—must be defrayed at the private charges of each member. There are no vows, and every member of the society is at liberty to withdraw when he pleases, and to take his property with him. The government, strikingly unlike the Jesuit autocracy, is of a republican form; and the superior, though first in honour, has to take his turn in discharging all the duties which come to each priest of the society in the order of his seniority, including that of waiting at table, which is not entrusted in the Oratory to lay brothers, according to the practice in most other communities. Four deputies assist the superior in the government, and all public acts are decided by a majority of votes of the whole congregation, in which the superior has no casting voice. To be chosen superior, fifteen years of membership are requisite as a qualification, and the office is tenable, as all the others, for but three years at a time. No one can vote till he has been three years in the society; the deliberative voice is not obtained before the eleventh year. There are thus three classes of members—novices, triennials and decennials. Each house can call its superior to account, can depose, and can restore him, without appeal to any external authority, although the bishop of the diocese in which any house of the Oratory is established is its ordinary and immediate superior, though without power to interfere with the rule. Their churches are non-parochial, and they can perform such rites as baptisms, marriages, &c., only by permission of the parish priest, who is entitled to receive all fees due in respect of these ministrations. The Oratory chiefly spread in Italy and in France, where in 176o there were 58 houses all under the government of a superior-general. Malebranche, Thomassin, Mascaron and Massillon were members of the famous branch established in Paris in 1611 by Berulle (after cardinal), which had a great success and a distinguished history. It fell in the crash of the Revolution, but was revived by Pere Petetot, cure of St Roch, in 1852, as the " Oratory of Jesus and the Immaculate Mary "; the Church of the Oratory near the Louvre belongs to the Reformed Church. An English house, founded in 1847 at Birmingham, is celebrated as the place at which Cardinal Newman fixed his abode after his sub-mission to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1849 a second congregation was founded in King William Street, Strand, London, with F. W. Faber as superior; in 1854 it was transferred to Brompton. The society has never thriven in Germany, though a few houses have been founded there, in Munich and Vienna.
End of Article: PHILIP NERI (FILIppo DE) (1515-1595)
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