It’s no surprise that youth–children and young adults–were drawn to Philip. They saw in him a priest who had a sense of humor, who liked to make people laugh, and who didn’t take himself too seriously.
I think a brief look at Philip’s own childhood helps us to know why he felt so compelled to work with youth. Philip as a child, called in his family “good little Phil,” was born in Florence in 1515. The family was poor, but they wanted nothing more than for Philip to be successful in worldly terms. When Philip was 18, his parents forced him, at least somewhat against his will, to work with his uncle, a businessman downtown.
Philip felt that there was more to his life than working in the business world; he felt that God was calling him to something far greater. He left abruptly, leaving a letter of thanks to his uncle, and went to Rome. In Rome, Philip went to school, tutored young boys, and of course had no money, so he lived in a small attic.
We see in this story Philip in his early years, and he believed that he–a mere youth–could do real work in and through the Church. He knew that he was called to serve God, not the prizes of the business world. Philip truly believed, as part 1 of this series discussed, that everyone in the Church was called to serve God in a truly unique fashion, and this universal call to holiness does not fly over the heads of the young.
Philip knew that the youth are the future of the Church. And so he spent much of his time forming them into the Catholic life.
Philip liked to spend time in the Catacombs among the relics of various saints. After a moving expierence there, he went home to his attic, sold all that he had there, and spent the next 13 years as a lay leader of young men in the Church. Philip wanted these men to love the Lord as much as he did, and he led them to that kind of love. Soon both rich and poor men were fleeing to him, and they spent their afternoons listening to spiritual talks, prayer, music, and discussions. These men were the first Oratorians. I think it’s important to notice that they began as young men, probably early in their teens, and Philip walked with many of them for 13 years as they became men.
I think anyone involved in youth programs ought to pray to St. Philip Neri!