Born in Florence in 1515 during the height of the Renaissance, Philip Neri was the youngest child of Francesco, a lawyer, and his noble-born wife, Lucrezia da Mosciano.
Taught by Dominican friars at San Marco, the beautiful friary that still overlooks that city, he then went to live with his uncle Romolo, a wealthy merchant close to Monte Cassino, to help his business (and, he hoped, inherit his fortune). But despite successfully ingratiating himself Philip then had a religious conversion, deciding he did not care for material things, and went to Rome. There he tutored and studied under the Augustinians and began to work for the sick and poor, a mission that earned him the nickname “Apostle of Rome”.
In 1548 he co-founded, with Fr Persiano Rossa, the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents, which looked after the countless poor pilgrims who flocked to the city, as well as people who had just come out of hospitals. The confraternity met at the Church of San Salvatore.
Philip was ordained in 1551 and five years later settled down, with some companions, at the hospital of San Girolamo della Carità and there began the society that would eventually become the Oratory.
The key to the group’s success was the evening meetings, which featured prayers, hymns, readings and a lecture, as well as music. Members undertook missionary work in the city, preaching in different churches. It included three future cardinals, as well as numerous authors and other notable figures of the time.
In 1564 the Florentines ordered Philip to take over their Rome church, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. In 1574 they built a mission room for the society next door, where the Congregation of the Oratory would settle. The Congregation was formally established in 1575.
Although Neri largely avoided the poisonous politics of the time, he did make one intervention, persuading Clement VIII to withdraw his excommunication of the moderate Henry IV of France, and thus perhaps saving France from another civil war.
Philip died in 1595, on the feast of Corpus Christi. He was beatified in 1615 and canonised just seven years later. He was much-loved not just for his piety and compassion but also for his humour and cheerful demeanour. In one of his prayers he said: “Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow.”
The Oratory spread across Italy and France and in 1847 Cardinal John Henry Newman found a house in Birmingham.