When he was about 16, a fire destroyed nearly all his father's property. At the age of 18, Philip was sent to his father's childless brother, Romolo, a wealthy 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 uncle's fortune. He did gain Romolo's confidence and affection, but soon after coming to San Germano Philip had a conversion. He no longer cared for things of the world, and chose to relocate to Rome in 1523.
In 1548 he founded (with his confessor, Fr Persiano Rossa) the confraternity of the Santissima Trinita de' Pellegrini e de' Convalescenti, whose primary object was 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 who were still too weak for labour. In 1551 he passed through all the minor orders, and was ordained deacon, and finally priest (on 23 May). He thought of going to India as a missionary, but was dissuaded by his friends who saw that there was abundant work to be done in Rome. Accordingly he settled down, with some companions, at the hospital of San Girolamo della Carità, and while there tentatively began, in 1556, the institute with which his name is more especially connected, that of the Oratory. The scheme at first was no more than a series of evening meetings in a hall (the Oratory), at which there were prayers, hymns, readings from Scripture, from the church fathers, and from the Martyrology, followed by a lecture, or by discussion of some religious question proposed for consideration. The musical selections (settings of scenes from sacred history) were called oratorios. The scheme was developed, and the members of the society undertook various kinds of mission work throughout Rome, notably the preaching of sermons in different churches every evening, a completely new idea at that time. He also spent much of his time hearing confessions, and effected many conversions in this way.
In 1564 the Florentines requested that he leave San Girolamo, and to oversee their church in Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, then newly built. He was at first reluctant, but by consent of Pope Pius IV he accepted, while retaining the charge of San Girolamo, where the exercises of the Oratory were kept up. At this time the new society included amongst its members Caesar Baronius, the ecclesiastical historian, Francesco Maria Tarugi, afterwards Archbishop of Avignon, and Paravicini, all three subsequently cardinals, and also Gallonius, author of a well-known work on the Sufferings of the Martyrs, Ancina, Bordoni, and other men of ability and distinction.
In 1574, the Florentines built a large oratory or mission-room for the society, next to San Giovanni, in order to save them the fatigue of the daily journey to and from San Girolamo, and to provide a more convenient place of assembly, and the headquarters were transferred there. As the community grew, and its mission work extended, the need for a church entirely its own, and not subject to other claims, as were San Girolamo and San Giovanni, made itself felt, and the offer of the small parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, conveniently situated in the middle of Rome, was made and accepted. The building, however, was not large enough for their purpose, was pulled down, and a splendid church erected on the site.
It was immediately after taking possession of their new quarters that Neri formally organized, under permission of a papal bull dated July 15, 1575, a community of secular priests, called the Congregation of the Oratory. The new church was consecrated early in 1577, and the clergy of the new society at once resigned the charge of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini; but Neri himself did not leave San Girolamo until 1583, and then only by virtue of an injunction of the pope that he, as the superior, should reside at the chief house of his congregation. He was at first elected for a term of three years (as is usual in modern societies), but in 1587 was nominated superior for life. He was, however, entirely free from personal ambition, and had no desire to be general over a number of dependent houses, so that he desired that all congregations formed on his model outside Rome should be autonomous, governing themselves, and without endeavouring to retain control over any new colonies they might themselves send out--a regulation afterwards formally confirmed by a brief of Gregory XV in 1622.
St. Philip possessed a playful humour, combined with a shrewd wit. He considered a cheerful temper to be more Christian than a melancholy one, and carried this spirit into his whole life:
"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--In 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, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer, and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private devotion.
Neri was not a reformer, except 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.
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, etc., 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 1760 there were 58 houses all under the government of a superior-general. Nicolas Malebranche, Louis Thomassin, Jules Mascaron and Jean Baptiste Massillon were members of the famous branch established in Paris in 1611 by Bérulle (later cardinal), which had a great success and a distinguished history. It fell in the crash of the Revolution, but was revived by Père Pététot, curé 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 submission to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1849 a second congregation was founded in King William Street, Strand, London, with FW Faber as superior; in 1854 it was transferred to Brompton, where it is still based. Its church, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was consecrated April 16, 1884 and is the second largest Roman Catholic church in London. The society has never thrived in Germany, though a few houses have been founded there, in Munich and Vienna.
Neri encouraged the singing of the lauda spirituale (laude) in his oratory services. The prominent composers Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina probably participated in this music.