...By Jack Sylva for TDPel Media.
Situated on the via Appia Antica, beyond the Aurelian walls, the ancient basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura holds great importance in Rome.
Not only is it one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome, but it also served as the temporary resting place for the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul during the Christian persecution.
Previously known as “Basilica Apostolorum,” it was later dedicated to St. Sebastian.
The Catacombs and St. Philip Neri’s Epiphany
Deep beneath the existing basilica lie the catacombs, where St. Philip Neri experienced a spiritual revelation on the eve of Pentecost in 1544.
It was in this sacred space that the beloved Second Apostle of Rome devoted himself to a life of charity.
Early Life, Arrival in Rome, and the Catacombs
Born into a wealthy Florentine family in 1515, Filippo Neri received a classical education from the Dominicans of the Monastery of San Marco.
Despite showing great promise and intelligence, he renounced his familial inheritance to pursue a spiritual calling of service.After a short period in San Germano, he arrived in Rome in 1534, unaware that it would become his final destination.
Upon his arrival, Neri witnessed a corrupt and decadent ecclesiastical environment.
However, it was in the Catacombs of San Sebastiano that he spent hours in contemplation and fervent prayer.
The catacombs, which served as the burial site for Christians who had died for their faith, including Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Sebastian, provided a striking contrast to the vices and squalor of the world above.
The Catacombs as a Symbol of Church’s Evolution
Symbolically, the catacombs represented the historical journey of the Church in Rome—persecution and triumph, faith and apostasy, splendor and destitution.
Neri’s spiritual exercises bridged the gap between ancient and contemporary, reflecting a return to the early traditions of the paleo-Christian era.
The unwavering faith, endurance, and martyrdom of the early Christians paved the way for a Christian Rome.
St. Philip Neri’s Pentecost Epiphany
It was befitting that Neri experienced his spiritual epiphany at the Catacombs of San Sebastiano during Pentecost.
Seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit, he received it in the form of a great ball of fire, entering through his mouth and settling in his heart.
This intense encounter led to an enlarged heart and lifelong palpitations during his spiritual exercises.
This transformative experience symbolized the spiritual zeal and fervent love of God that animated both the apostles and Neri, inspiring them to evangelize.
The Foundation of the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity
In 1540, while still a layman (he was ordained a priest in 1551 at the age of 36), Neri established the Confraternita della Santissima Trinità (the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity), receiving canonical status from Pope Paul III.
During the 1550 jubilee, Neri invoked the archconfraternity’s formation to care for the numerous pilgrims, particularly the most vulnerable among them.
Today, the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity continues its charitable work in the Church of Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini.
Built in 1614 on the site of an older church dedicated to St. Benedict, this church serves as a personal
parish of the Fraternity of St. Peter—a community dedicated to celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass.
Through their various activities for the poor of Rome, they embody Neri’s example by providing a living testimony of faith and charity.
St. Philip Neri: A Contemporary Model of Christian Life
This year, St. Philip Neri’s feast day falls on the Friday before Pentecost.
He holds a special place in Rome’s cultural heritage and has left an enduring impact on the spiritual life of the city and the universal Church.
Through his founding of the Congregation of Oratorians, his promotion of the 40-hour devotion, and the Roman pilgrimage of the Seven Churches, he exemplified love and charity.
In 2015, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of Neri’s birth, Pope Francis described him as a radiant model of the Church’s ongoing mission in the world.
The way Neri approached others, bearing witness to the love and mercy of the Lord, serves as an invaluable example for bishops, priests, consecrated individuals, and lay faithful alike.