Newman on St. Philip Neri as a Model of Reform

The example of St. Philip Neri, as well as the eloquent and spiritually potent lessons drawn from the saint’s life by Bl. John Henry Newman, provide a model for today’s Catholics about how to work for deep and lasting ecclesial reform.

St. Philip Neri, as painted by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri in 1656. [Wikipedia]

He will not contend or cry out,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory.”
Matthew 12:19-20

In these troubled days of crisis and scandal, the Catholic Church is populated by many a “bruised reed” and many a “smoldering wick.” The wounded faithful are all around us.

At its root, the word “crisis” indicates a moment of decision, a moment of critical importance. All Catholics today face a life-shaping decision about how to respond to the seemingly endless stream of reports of sexual abuse and failed handling of sexual abuse cases by Church leaders that we have encountered these past several months.

The decision is a stark one, between hope and despair, persevering fidelity and betrayal, between remaining with Christ and abandoning him. But even among those who choose to remain with Christ, there is another decision to be made, between the pursuit of ecclesial revolution or reform.

Most Catholics have a visceral reaction against the word “revolution.” We know that revolutionary change is foreign to the Church’s constitution and lived tradition. And yet there is a kind of revolutionary spirit that can take hold of any zealous Catholic who faces highly destructive forms of evil such as we are currently witnessing. To seek to effect dramatic and immediate change is a natural instinct for those who wish to protect the Church they love. It is easy to cross the line between reform and revolution.

Keeping in mind the supreme priority of the salvation of souls—a priority articulated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, among other sources—those who seek to help the Church must give first consideration to what will help those people most threatened to avoid hell and go to heaven. This consideration means, among other things, that reed-breaking and wick-quenching must be avoided. While reform heals and edifies not only ecclesial structures, but also people, revolution tends to do a great deal of damage along with achieving some measure of good.

Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the recent papal approval of whose second miracle has paved the way for his imminent canonization, expressed his own views regarding ecclesial reform in a pair of sermons given in 1850 at the Birmingham Oratory of St. Philip Neri. The sermons were entitled, “The Mission of St. Philip Neri.” In them, Newman spoke to his fellow oratorians about the life and ministry of their patron saint by comparing and contrasting the apostolic approach of St. Philip with that of another famous Florentine priest who lived a century earlier, the Dominican Giorolamo Savonarola (1452-1498).

Savonarola lived shortly before the Protestant Reformation, while St. Philip’s priestly ministry coincided more or less with the second half of the sixteenth century, in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation. Both of them principally faced, not the Reformation itself, but those evils within the Renaissance-era Church against which the Protestants reacted. Though nothing justifies breaking communion with Rome, it was nevertheless a time of widespread decadence, sin, and godlessness in the Church. And two godly men confronted these evils in very different ways.

Evil in the Renaissance Church

Although it makes for a long quotation, Newman’s description of the situation of the Church at this time is too perfect to paraphrase. The haunting picture Newman draws for his hearers bore some poignancy for the English Catholics of his own time, but it is perhaps much more apt for describing the crisis of the Church today:

(St. Philip’s) times were such as the Church has never seen before nor since, and such as the world must last long for her to see again; nor peculiar only in themselves, but involving a singular and most severe trial of the faith and love of her children. It was a time of sifting and peril, and of “the fall and resurrection of many in Israel.” Our gracious Lord, we well know, never will forsake her; He will sustain her in all dangers, and she will last while the world lasts; but, if ever there was a time when He seemed preparing to forsake her, it was not the time of persecution, when thousands upon thousands of her choicest were cut off, and her flock decimated; it was not in the middle age, when the ferocity of the soldier and subtlety of the sophist beleaguered her,—but it was in that dreary time, at the close and in the fulness of which St. Philip entered upon his work. A great author, one of his own sons, Cardinal Baronius, has said of the dark age, that it was a time when our Lord seemed to be asleep in Peter’s boat; but there is another passage of the Gospel still more wonderful than the record of that sleep, and one which had a still more marvellous accomplishment in the period of which I have to speak. There was a time when Satan took up bodily the King of Saints, and carried Him whither he would. Then was our most Holy Saviour and Lord clasped in the arms of ambition, avarice, and impurity:—and in like manner His Church also after Him, though full of divine gifts, the Immaculate Spouse, the Oracle of Truth, the Voice of the Holy Ghost, infallible in matters of faith and morals, whether in the chair of her Supreme Pontiff, or in the unity of her Episcopate, nevertheless was at this time so environed, so implicated, with sin and lawlessness, as to appear in the eyes of the world to be what she was not. Never, as then, were her rulers, some in higher, some in lower degree, so near compromising what can never be compromised; never so near denying in private what they taught in public, and undoing by their lives what they professed with their mouths; never were they so mixed up with vanity, so tempted by pride, so haunted by concupiscence; never breathed they so tainted an atmosphere, or were kissed by such traitorous friends, or were subjected to such sights of shame, or were clad in such blood-stained garments, as in the centuries upon and in which St. Philip came into the world. Alas, for us, my Brethren! the scandal of deeds done in Italy then is borne by us in England now.

At a time when Satan’s power over so many people seemed overwhelming, it was imperative to manifest God’s power in order to oppose this threat. But how best to accomplish this?

A Fiery Apostle

The first approach Newman describes is that of Savonarola. The Dominican priest is not a villain for Newman. Nor was he a villain in the eyes of St. Philip Neri, who held “affection…for his memory,” according to Newman. Savonarola eventually fell into excesses of zeal and weakness, but at first he did much that was good and did it with upright motivations.

Students of Church history know that Savonarola’s approach in calling the people of Florence to repentance and conversion was characterized by loud, public denunciations of sin. Later, the Dominican added a call for the burning of problematic books and other possessions deemed morally objectionable. Newman gives a vivid account of Savonarola’s apostolic zeal:

A true son of St. Dominic, in energy, in severity of life, in contempt of merely secular learning, a forerunner of the Dominican St. Pius in boldness, in resoluteness, in zeal for the honour of the House of God, and for the restoration of holy discipline, Savonarola felt “his spirit stirred up within him,” like another Paul, when he came to that beautiful home of genius and philosophy; for he found Florence, like another Athens, “wholly given to idolatry.” He groaned within him, and was troubled, and refused consolation, when he beheld a Christian court and people priding itself on its material greatness, its intellectual gifts, and its social refinement, while it abandoned itself to luxury, to feast and song and revel, to fine shows and splendid apparel, to an impure poetry, to a depraved and sensual character of art, to heathen speculations, and to forbidden, superstitious practices. His vehement spirit could not be restrained, and got the better of him, and—unlike the Apostle, whose prudence, gentleness, love of his kind, and human accomplishments are nowhere more happily shown than in his speech to the Athenians—he burst forth into a whirlwind of indignation and invective against all that he found in Florence, and condemned the whole established system, and all who took part of it, high and low, prince or prelate, ecclesiastic or layman, with a pitiless rigour,—which for the moment certainly did a great deal more than St. Paul was able to do at the Areopagus; for St. Paul made only one or two converts there, and departed, whereas Savonarola had great immediate success, frightened and abashed the offenders, rallied round him the better disposed, and elicited and developed whatever there was of piety, whether in the multitude or in the upper class.

Savonarola’s “bold language effected for the moment a revolution rather than a reform.” On the one hand, his approach yielded many genuine conversions, displays of increased devotion, reforms in people’s dress, artistic works, and in many penitential acts. On the other hand, these positive strides were not to last. The seeds of revolution were not deeply planted enough to stand the test of time, and eventually Savonarola himself took a spiritual turn for the worse.

“At length, his innocence, sincerity, and zeal were the ruin of his humility,” Newman says of Savonarola, who eventually came to oppose even the pope in his excess of zeal. According to Newman, “Reform is not wrought out by disobedience,” Newman adds. Savonarola eventually lost his way and his spiritual authority, and was executed by hanging and burning in the same square where he had burned all the people’s belongings that he had judged to be “occasions of sin.”

The Whisper of a Gentle Air”

Though both Savonarola and St. Philip Neri began their priestly labors as godly men, it is St. Philip whose ministry was carried out in a more godly way. While the Lord reveals himself to man as the God of power and might, he also shows himself to be a God of gentleness, kindness, and mercy. To cultivate and act out of these godly qualities brings about the deepest and most effective ecclesial reform. Newman writes:

It is not by the enthusiasm of the multitude, or by political violence,—it is not by powerful declamation, or by railing at authorities, that the foundations are laid of religious works. It is not by sudden popularity, or by strong resolves, and demonstrations, or by romantic incidents, or by immediate successes, that undertakings commence which are to last. I do not say, that to be roused, even for a moment, from the dream of sin, to repent and be absolved, even though a relapse follow it, is a slight gain; or that the brilliant, but brief, triumphs of Savonarola are to be despised. He did good in his day, though his day was a short one. Still, after all, his history brings to mind that passage in sacred history, where the Almighty displayed His presence to Elias on Mount Horeb. “The Lord was not in the wind,” nor “in the earthquake,” nor “in the fire”; but after the fire came “the whisper of a gentle air.”

Saint Philip Neri was the “whisper of a gentle air” that would produce good and lasting fruit in the city of Rome, where he served as a priest for sixty years, beginning at the age of twenty.

The late Dominican preacher exercised an important influence over the young Philip, having died fewer than twenty years before Philip was born. The memory of Savonarola was still fresh in the minds of the people of Florence. And Philip not only admired all that was good in Savonarola and in his priestly work, but he also spent much time and was highly influenced by the Dominican Monastery of St. Mark’s in Florence.

According to Newman, three saints chiefly influenced the young Philip Neri: St. Benedict, St. Dominic, and St. Ignatius of Loyola, Philip’s contemporary in Rome. The combination of influences produced a potent spirituality and apostolic methodology in Philip’s priesthood. He was, by temperament and decision, also a bit of an odd duck, taking an unconventional approach to ministry.

In fact, upon arriving in Rome, the saint did not launch out immediately into apostolic labors, but spent ten years praying in the Roman Catacombs. It was a most unusual monastic beginning to a priesthood that would be largely characterized by a vigorous, active apostolate.

In seeking reform, St. Philip “was to pursue Savonarola’s purposes, but not in Savonarola’s way.” He emphasized community life, characterized by mutual love and hard work. He engaged in regular preaching, but a kind of preaching that was more subdued and steady than Savonarola’s more fiery, intense style. The daily preaching of St. Philip, and later of his fellow oratorians, was based upon spiritual works, the lives of the saints, and Church history.

Saint Philip always possessed tremendous interior zeal. At one point, at about the age of forty, he thought of going East as a missionary, but, as Newman writes, “his Indies were to be in Rome, where God would make much use of him.”

Whereas Savonarola had primarily aimed at external reform among the people of Florence, St. Philip worked chiefly for internal reform, sure that the external would follow—and it often did. He insisted on interior conversion, and the disciplining of the faculty of reason. He encouraged frequent confession and Holy Communion, love and freedom of spirit, humility and even humiliation, and devotion to the Holy Eucharist.

Saint Philip’s approach was slow and steady. “While he wished to do the very work which Savonarola intended, he set about it…in a different way,” Newman writes. He began by ministering to the poor, though he ended-up advising popes, nobles, philosophers, and artists. He was a heroic confessor, like St. John Vianney would later be. He was also heroically patient in a way that was not typical of Savonarola. Saint Philip wept for the sins of men, and took on severe penances on their behalf.

Saint Philip “allured men to the service of God so dexterously, and with such a holy, winning art, that those who saw it cried out, astonished: ‘St. Philip draws souls as the magnet draws iron,’” Newman writes. And his work bore bountiful and lasting fruit in Rome and beyond. According to Newman, one pilgrim to Rome when St. Philip was about the age of fifty wrote, “Among all the wonderful things which I saw in Rome, I took the chief pleasure in beholding the multitude of devout and spiritual persons who frequented the Oratory. Amid the monuments of antiquity, the superb palaces and courts of so many illustrious lords, it appeared to me that the glory of this exemplar shone forth with surpassing light.”

An Appeal for Apostolic Purity and Godliness

The example of St. Philip Neri, as well as the eloquent and spiritually powerful lessons drawn from the saint’s life by Bl. John Henry Newman, provide a model for today’s Catholics of how to work for deep and lasting ecclesial reform. Zeal is a great gift, but it must be tempered by Christ-like meekness and mercy. Mercy is not wimpiness or the abdication of one’s duty to justice. Meekness and kindness do not make one wishy-washy, but rather make a person like Christ, who brought salvation to the whole world by means of humility and self-sacrificial love.

In all things, the clergy and lay faithful alike are called to fight the evils of the day, within and outside of the Church, by becoming like Christ and sharing in his mission of salvation. Blessed John Henry Newman ended his second sermon on St. Philip Neri with a prayer that the Catholics of today would do well to offer for each other:

But I would beg for you this privilege, that the public world might never know you for praise or for blame, that you should do a good deal of hard work in your generation, and prosecute many useful labours, and effect a number of religious purposes, and send many souls to heaven, and take men by surprise, how much you were really doing, when they happened to come near enough to see it; but that by the world you should be overlooked, that you should not be known out of your place, that you should work for God alone with a pure heart and single eye, without the distractions of human applause, and should make Him your sole hope, and His eternal heaven your sole aim, and have your reward, not partly here, but fully and entirely hereafter.

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About Fr. Charles Fox 81 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, headquartered in Warren, MI.


  1. May 26 would have been ideal for this article :)!

    But it would take many St Philips to rescue the Church as it is now 🙁

    IMHO he is the ideal Saint for today.

  2. A quiet interior approach today would have benefit. Would that we had a thousand Saint Philip Neri’s. The problematic in Fr Fox’s response is that in both historical settings the Church was impaled to the Cross by moral sin. It’s impaled now by widespread doctrinal heresy as well as wide spread moral sin. And unlike prev ages we’re not suffering an abrogation of a singular doctrine. All Catholic doctrine is presently subject to radical revision centered on a new Paradigmatic doctrine of Mercy that overrides Justice. All subject to the preeminence of conscience rather than Rule. All subject to the human condition rather than divine revelation. All emanating from the Pontiff. Not by sudden pronouncement or definitive statement rather by suggestion furtive declaration [example oblique referenced letters inserted in the AAS] dismissals appointments restructuring. There is and can be no precedent to what’s occurring because it’s total. Time is of the essence as multitudes abandon the true faith and Hierarchy refuse to act with courage as evidenced by failing to bring up the real issues of entrenched clerical homosexuality and mitigation of Apostolic Tradition during the most recent Synod [Yet the Am Bishops had the verve to condemn border walls]. What well intended Fr Fox overlooked were other examples relevant to our time, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint Peter Damian, certainly the Apostle Paul. A spiritually sound opposition with a bit of fire is more the menu for the day.

    • Amen to a “bit of fire” instead of mercy annihilating justice:

      This from the-soon-to-be-saint Cardinal Newman: “Now I fear we lack…firmness, manliness, godly severity. I fear it must be confessed, that our kindness, instead of being directed and braced by principle, too often becomes languid and unmeaning; that it is exerted on improper objects, and out of season, and thereby is uncharitable in two ways, indulging those who should be chastised, and preferring their comfort to those who are really deserving [….] I wish I saw prospect of this element of zeal and holy sternness springing up among us, to temper and give character to the languid, unmeaning benevolence which we misname Christian love. I have no hope of my country till I see it” (Sermon XXIII).

  3. A most commendable essay and equally commendable comments.

    Fr. Hunwicke of England, in his wonderful site “Fr. Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment,” has offered some teaching which helps bridge what is misunderstood by us as a conflicted choice between manly power and “meekness.”

    As some readers know, Fr. H is a scholar of Latin and Greek.

    He wrote a while ago about meekness, and the true, rooted meaning of the word in Greek.

    Jesus prophecied: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

    Was Jesus playing with a paradox? That is what we have been taught. Fr. Hunwicke revealed that Jesus was stating no paradox at all, but instead, something profoundly common-sensical, to men and women of 2000 years ago, when life and death meant knowing how to do physical work, and bring forth fruit.

    Fr. H disclosed that “meekness” in the ancient Greek is a description of a well-trained work horse that can be harnessed for the plow and the wagon, and under control of its master, its immense power will be put to good use in hard work, whether it be the wheat field, or the battlefield.

    So meekness is not the slender, doe-eyed Jesus we are so often confronted with, as some preferential option for “weakness.”

    Meekness means the powerful, muscular creature that, having been well trained and obeying its master, can pull plows and subdue the earth, and bring forth abundance by harnessing it’s great power.

    Meekness is about well-harnessed power.

    The Lord Jesus has trained our minds and hearts, and He bids us submit to his yoke, that he may put our power to His Good Hard Work.

    May His Father Grant us the grace to be the work horses of His fruitful Son.

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