Today the Church honors St. Philip Neri, whom we might contrast with St. Charles Borromeo. They were from noble Italian families, and they knew each other at the close of the Council of Trent in 1563. Charles was thirty-three that year, Philip was forty-eight. They were saints in quite different ways.
St. Charles Borromeo, was a business-like man who had authority thrust on him at an early age. In his twenties he was placed at the head of an important Italian family. While he was still in his twenties, his uncle, the pope, made him governor of the Papal States; as well, he named him the archbishop of Milan. His diocese covered several Swiss cantons where Catholicism was the official religion. In compliance with the law for officially Catholic cantons, Charles authorized officers of his Golden League to use torture in the trials of Calvinists accused of heresy.
In contrast, Philip Neri was a Sixties Person. Coming from an important Florentine family, he too had a well-placed uncle. His uncle put him in charge of a trading company on Naples. Then, one day Philip told his uncle, “Thanks, Uncle, but no thanks.” He left Naples to pursue studies in Rome, supporting himself tutoring children. Having completed his education, he simply took to wandering about Rome, caring for sick people, teaching children how to pray.
The great number of women forced into prostitution aroused his sympathy, and drawing funds from his family connections, he found housing and support to let many women live in decent comfort. They called him their Father.
Attending Mass whenever it was available, Philip would get carried away in prayer. St. John’s words “God is love” captivated him, leading him in to deep contemplation of the Blessed Trinity.
Rome’s scholarly young men, clerics and laymen, were attracted to Phillip, always engaging him in discussions. One well placed young scholar provided Phillip and the others with an abandoned hall where they could gather for religious and scholarly discussions. Phillip enjoyed introducing music into the mix.
When he was thirty-six the priests of Rome persuaded him to take ordination to the priesthood. When he was thirty-nine Pope Paul IV, Charles Borromeo’s uncle, gave them standing as an order of the Church, calling them the Oratorians. It remained a loose outfit, with everyone sharing the chores.
Charles Borromeo, raised to the level of a cardinal, urged the Oratorians to conform to set rules, taking the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The Oratorians resisted, saying one set of robes doesn’t fit all comers.
Since he might fall into contemplation while offering Mass, he instructed the server boys to ring the bell in his ear to keep him going. Hating having people calling him a saint, he bought a monkey, and he carried him around on his shoulder to look foolish.