Philip Neri, the Common Denominator

Published Apr 28, 2010
Philip Neri, the Common Denominator

The musical form called the "Oratorio," the counter-Reformation, the Jesuits, lay ministries, a new Roman Catholic order, and John Henry Newman have a common denominator. That denominator is Philip Neri.

Born into a noble family, the son of a lawyer, Philip Neri was notable in his youth for self-discipline and love of learning. At age 17 he was sent to work with an uncle, a wealthy merchant, who offered to leave Philip his business. But commerce was repugnant to Neri. At 18 he renounced the lucrative offer and went to Rome. There he supported himself as a private tutor, studying, fasting and praying. He especially admired the life and work of Savonarola. To all who knew him, he seemed destined for the priesthood. How astonished they were when instead he sold his books, gave the proceeds to the poor, and became a lay evangelist.

For 13 years he pursued his individualistic course, steeping himself in piety, meditating on the gospels, visiting the catacombs, and winning friends and acquaintances to Christ. In 1548 he left his solitary path and organized a group of laymen to assist impoverished or sick pilgrims. His spiritual director, Father Rosa, urged him to become a priest, arguing he would better be able to serve the world. Neri consented.

As priest of S. Girolamo della Carità, his confessional drew many pilgrims and converts. To further their sanctification, he developed a series of informal afternoon talks and discussions, combined with prayers and hymns.

Several of Philip's followers became priests. At the church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, they formed a community but took no vows. They ate, prayed and worked together in an oratory built over the church, and on this day, May 25, 1574, they became the nucleus of a new order, the Congregation of the Oratory. He adapted the work he had developed at S. Girolamo to his new church. Often the talks and Bible readings were accompanied by musical pieces composed by his follower Palestrina. Thus was born the form known as the oratorio. The Congregation of the Oratory was approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575 for prayer and preaching. About 50 congregations exist today.

A church building at Rome was given to the order. In Rome, Philip labored with much success to call worldly church leaders to personal holiness. Great men and the spiritual leaders of the age, including Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, came to him for advice. Next to Loyola, Neri is considered the greatest of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation figures. Some report his personality was in many respects as attractive as St. Francis of Assisi's. The Catholic converts John Henry Newman and Frederick Faber founded Congregations of Oratorians in England.


  1. Jameson, Anna. Legends of the Monastic Orders. London: Longman, Green and Co., 1872.
  2. Neri, Philip. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Editor Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
  3. "Neri, Philip, St." and "Oratorians." New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York : Thomson, Gale, 2002 - .
  4. "Philip Neri, St." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.

Last updated April, 2007.


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