The origins of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri were in the lay apostolate which he himself began, largely among the city’s Florentine community, after his arrival in Rome in 1533. Its shape and charism had emerged more precisely by 1552, when Philip began to collect a circle of men in his room at the Roman church of San Girolamo della Carità.
The previous year Philip had reluctantly agreed to be ordained to the priesthood, on the advice of his spiritual director. In order to keep his circle of young men out of trouble during the afternoons, Philip occupied them with spiritual reading, edifying conversation, and pilgrimages to churches and convents. Visits to the sick and the dying in hospitals were part of this apostolate. In the evenings, some of his penitents would return to him in his room at San Girolamo for more prayer. It was only when the group became too large to manage single-handed that he proposed that some of the original lay members should be ordained.
By 1558 Philip’s group had outgrown his own small room, and so a larger space over the church was adapted as an ‘Oratory’ for their meetings, which began to take on the more definite form known as the “Exercises of the Oratory”. These consisted of mental prayer, informal comment on spiritual readings, vocal prayers, and the singing of hymns and songs. In 1575 they acquired the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella and the Congregation was canonically erected by Pope Gregory XIII. Its status was confirmed as a community of secular priests bound by charity but not vows. The Oratory consisted of lay-brothers as well as priests. In line with Philip’s wishes to avoid anything resembling a religious Order, there was no separate house of novice formation. Those who joined the Oratory were formed by living among the Community as a family.
Before Philip’s death in 1595, the foundation of other Oratories in Italy was already underway, notably in Naples. St. Philip viewed these developments without enthusiasm and was insistent that any new foundations should be quite independent of the original Roman house.
The introduction of the Oratory to England was the work of two prominent nineteenth century converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism, John Henry Newman and Frederick William Faber.
After Newman was received into the Catholic Church in October 1845, he wrote to Faber: “I have long felt special reverence and admiration for the character of St. Philip Neri, as far as I knew it, and was struck by your saying that his church in Rome was in the Vallicella – I wish we could all become good Oratorians, but that, I suppose, is impossible.”
Newman went to Rome to explore the possibility and returned to England with Pope Pius IX’s formal approval to establish an English Oratory. This was canonically erected at Birmingham in 1848, and a year later Newman asked Faber with other members of their group to found another Oratory in London.