The Italian reformer St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) is known as the Apostle of Rome. With his distinctly joyous and personal manner, he was one of the influential figures of the Catholic Reformation. His special contribution was the creation of the Congregation of the Oratory.
Philip Neri was born in Florence on July 21, 1515, the son of a lawyer. As a boy, Philip befriended the Dominicans at the convent of S. Marco. In 1532 or 1533 he went to San Germano (Cassino) to learn business under the tutelage of an uncle, but, repelled by commercial affairs and feeling a pronounced desire for a life of close union with God, he left San Germano after a few months and went to Rome. There he studied philosophy and theology at Sapienza University and Sant'Agostino. He made friends easily and met regularly with some of them at the church of S. Girolamo della Carità for discussion, prayer, and the reception of Holy Communion. S. Girolamo became his home for 32 years. On May 23, 1551, after 18 years in Rome, Philip was ordained a priest. His room, the center for the intimate and prayerful meetings, became known about 1554 as the "Oratory."
Philip, who dreaded formalism and loved spontaneity, gave his little groups a definite character. Scripture readings, short commentaries, brief prayers, and hymns were the usual program. Giovanni Palestrina wrote much of the musical setting for the scriptural texts, the motets, and the laudi spirituali, which gave rise to the term "oratorio." This kind of apostolate suffered under the stern pontificates of Paul IV and Pius V. But Philip numbered among his friends some of the great saints of the age: Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Felix of Cantalice, Camillus de Lellis, and Ignatius of Loyola. As more priests became his followers, Philip, who did not wish a tightly organized group united by religious vows, created a congregation of secular priests living in community. In 1575 Pope Gregory XIII approved the Congregation of the Oratory.
Philip's famous walks especially won him the title Apostle of Rome. Surrounded by a laughing and joking group, he penetrated all corners of the city, radiating gaiety by his simple friendship and playful wit. Beneath his external life were the deep foundations of an intense spirit of prayer and love for the priestly offices of hearing confessions and offering the Mass. For hours at a time, he received an abundance of unusual supernatural gifts when he was wrapped in ecstasy. In 1575 S. Maria in. Vallicella became the Oratorians' church. Philip moved there in 1583, and there he died on May 26, 1595.
A most readable and scholarly biography is Louis Ponnelle and Louis Bordet, St. Philip Neri and the Roman Society of His Times, 1515-1595, translated by Ralph F. Kerr (1932). Louis Bouyer wrote a beautifully sensitive appreciation of St. Philip in The Roman Socrates, translated by Michael Day (1958).