Except for the hours he devoted to his pupils, Philip seems to have passed his first two years at Rome as a recluse, spending much time in prayer in his bare, uncomfortable attic. He ate frugal meals of bread, water, and a few olives or vegetables. It was a period of intense preparation, and at its dose he emerged from obscurity with his spirit strengthened, his resolve to live for God confirmed. He now took courses in philosophy and theology at the Sapienza and at St. Augustine's monastery. For three years he worked so hard that he was considered an unusually promising scholar. Then, quite suddenly, moved by some inner prompting, he put an end to classes and studying, sold most of his books, and launched on a mission to the people of Rome.
He began in the most direct way possible, making acquaintances on street corners and in the public squares, where people were inclined to loiter. At first he interested himself especially in the young Florentines who were employed in the banks and shops of the busy Sant'Angelo quarter near the Vatican. He has been compared to Socrates for the way he could seize on opportunities for engaging in conversation and then lead his hearers on by questions and suggestions to consider a better way of life. His warm friendliness and lively sense of humor would quickly catch the attention of passersby, and once caught, they found it difficult to break away. By this warm, personal approach he gradually prevailed on many to give up their careless way of life. His customary question, "Well, brothers, when shall we begin to do good?" soon brought a response, provided he led the way. Losing no time in converting good intentions into action, he would take them to wait on the sick in the hospitals or to pray in the Seven Churches, one of Philip's own favorite devotions. His days were wholly given up to others, but towards evening it was his habit to retire into solitude, to spend the night in a church porch or in the catacombs beside the Appian Way, gathering strength for another day's work.
In one of the grottoes along the Appian Way he had an experience which affected him profoundly. He was praying on the eve of Pentecost, 1544, when there appeared to him what seemed to be a globe of fire; it entered his mouth and afterwards he felt a dilation of the heart. Immediately he was filled with such paroxysms of divine love that he fell to the ground exclaiming, "Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no morel " When he had come to himself and risen up, he discovered a swelling over his heart, though neither then nor later did. it give him pain. From that day on, under stress of spiritual emotion, he was apt to be seized with palpitations; at such times he would ask God to mitigate His visitations lest he should die of love.
In the year 1548, when Philip had been carrying out his informal mission for some ten years, he founded, with the help of his confessor, Father Persiano Rossa, a confraternity of poor laymen who met for spiritual exercises in the church of San Salvatore in Campo. He popularized the devotion of the Forty Hours, and undertook to provide for needy pilgrims, a work which led to the building of the famous hospital Santa Trinita. During the Year of Jubilee of 1575 it cared for no less than a hundred and forty-five thousand pilgrims. Later it received convalescents also.
Thus by the time he was thirty-four, Philip had accomplished a great deal. His confessor, however, was convinced that as a priest his work would be even more effective. Philip's humility made him shrink from taking Holy Orders, but at last, on May 23, 1551, he was ordained. He went to live with Father Rossa and other priests at San Girolamo and thereafter carried on his mission mainly through the confessional. Starting before daybreak and continuing hour after hour, he sat in the tribunal of penance, while men and women of all ages and ranks flocked to him. Sometimes he conducted informal discussions with those who desired to lead a better life, or he would read aloud to them, choosing the lives of the saints, martyrs, and missionaries. The story of the heroic life and death of St. Francis Xavier so inspired Philip that he himself considered service in the foreign mission field: a Cistercian whom he consulted persuaded him that Rome was to be his Indies.
To accommodate the increasing number of those who attended Philip's discussions, a large room was built over the nave of San Girolamo. Several other priests were appointed to assist him. The people called them "Oratorians" because they rang a little bell to summon the faithful to prayers in their "oratory." The actual foundation of the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory was laid a few years later, when Philip presented five of his young followers for ordination and sent them to serve the church of San Giovanni, which had been put in his charge by fellow Florentines living in Rome. The future cardinal and Church historian, Caesar Baronius, was among them. Philip drew up for them some simple rules: they were to share a common table and perform spiritual exercises under his direction, but they were not to bind themselves to the life by vow or to renounce their property. The organization grew rapidly, although it met with opposition in certain quarters. In 1575, the Congregation received the formal approbation of Pope Gregory XIII, who later bestowed on it the ancient church of Santa Maria in Vellicella. The building was in a ruinous condition and far too small. Philip was not long in deciding to demolish it and rebuild on a large scale.
He had no money, but contributions poured in from his friends, rich and poor. Pope Gregory and Charles Borromeo gave generously, as did other prominent men. Cardinals and princes were now among Philip's disciples, though he sometimes shocked them by his impulsiveness. His desire was always to establish a close, human bond with others, even though it meant indulging in a wine-drinking contest, practical joking, or other undignified behavior. He acted in a jocular manner to conceal his deep emotion, or to put himself on a level with those around him. Humility was the virtue he strove most of all to practice, but of course he could not conceal his extraordinary gifts or sanctity. More than once he foretold events which later came to pass. He lived in such a state of spiritual exaltation that at times it was with difficulty that he carried on his daily labors. Men declared that his face often glowed with a celestial radiance.
By April, 1577, work on the Nuova Chiesa, or New Church, had advanced sufficiently for the Congregation of the Oratory to be transferred there. Philip stayed at San Girolamo for another seven years before he moved to quarters in the New Church. Although he ate his meals apart from the group, he was far from leading the life of a solitary. Not only did his spiritual sons have free access to him, but his room was constantly crowded by others. Rich and poor mounted the steps that led to his refuge at the top of the house, with its balcony looking over the roofs of Rome. The Italian people loved and venerated him, and visitors came from other countries to speak with him. Thus he continued his apostolate when the infirmities of age prevented him from leading an active life. The College of Cardinals frequently sought his advice, and although he refrained from becoming involved in political matters, he broke this rule when he persuaded Pope Clement VII to withdraw the excommunication and anathema laid on Henry IV of France. In the words of one of his biographers, "He was all things to all men.... When he was called upon to be merry, he was so; if there was a demand upon his sympathy, he was equally ready.... In consequence of his being so accessible and willing to receive all comers, many went to him every day, and some continued for the space of thirty, nay, forty years, to visit him very often both morning and evening, so that his room went by the agreeable nickname of the "Home of Christian mirth." The tradition of this genial saint was very much alive two hundred years later, when the German poet Goethe was living in Rome. He heard so much of Neri that he studied the sources and wrote a highly appreciative essay about him, entitled, "The Humorous Saint."
One of the most famous members of the Oratorian order, Cardinal Newman, wrote of Neri nearly three hundred years after his death, "he contemplated as the idea of his mission, not the propagation of the faith, nor the exposition of doctrine, nor the catechetical schools; whatever was exact and systematic pleased him not; he put from him monastic rule and authoritative speech, as David refused the armor of his king.... He came to the Eternal City and he sat himself down there, and his home and his family gradually grew up around him, by the spontaneous accession of materials from without. He did not so much seek his own as draw them to him. He sat in his small room, and they in their gay, worldly dresses, the rich and the wellborn, as well as the simple and the illiterate, crowded into it. In the mid-heats of summer, in the frosts of winter still was he in that low and narrow cell at San Girolamo, reading the hearts of those who came to him, and curing their souls' maladies by the very touch of his hand.... And they who came remained gazing and listening till, at length, first one and then another threw off their bravery, and took his poor cassock and girdle instead; or, if they kept it, it was to put haircloth under it, or to take on them a rule of life, while to the world they looked as before."