What is the Oratory?
The Oratory, founded by St Philip Neri (1515-1595), is a Society of Priests and Brothers who live together under a Rule without taking religious vows – the Bond of Charity thus being what binds Members of this Institute. St Philip was ordained in 1551 and canonized in 1622. The official date for the beginning of the Exercises of the Oratory is 1558, but we know that they were held already in the attic of San Girolamo in 1555. The Congregation of the Oratory was given formal approval in 1575.
Oratorians work for the glory of God and the good of their neighbours, free to resign their membership in the Congregation without canonical impediment or ecclesiastical dispensation. Hence the daily prayer for perseverance at the Exercises of the Oratory, and the old saying that “true sons of St Philip are known at their burial”.
Behold the model of the sons of St Philip who, in imitation of their Saviour, do what they do in the service of God spontaneously and of their own free will, and can say with Him, Voluntarie sacrificabo tibi, out of zeal for the glory of God, for the salvation of souls, and for their own greater perfection. … The beauty of our Congregation lies in our subjects not being imprisoned, or bound by the chains of rigorous laws, but by love, which is stronger than death itself. Its beauty is that its subjects always serve as volunteers, and serve at their own cost, like volunteer soldiers attached to an army, who if they behave with as much valour as the others in fighting the enemy, are held in higher esteem and acquire great fame. This, then, is the prerogative of our subjects, always to have the liberty of abandoning the Congregation, and yet not to abandon it through love and fidelity to our vocation. (From ‘The Excellences of the Oratory’)
Each Oratory, observing the way of life introduced by St Philip in the Roman Oratory, forms an individual Community, independent of all other Oratories, flourishing or withering on its own. St Philip did not compose a Rule but inaugurated a way of life, and his Oratory has been more attuned than traditional religious orders to the spirit of freedom and the need for adapting its traditions to the requirements and opportunities of time and locality. But as a little ship in need of balance, Oratories have also been wary of sweeping changes. The Oratorian ethos is not a literary invention or a recently-forged improvisation; it is a living tradition. Catholic converts, Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Fr Frederick William Faber, (1814-1863) brought the developed form of Oratorian life to England shortly before many Italian Oratories disappeared during the Risorgimento. Newman the Oratorian characterized his founding work in this way: “We shall do our best to import a tradition, not to set up something for ourselves, which to me is very unpleasant.”
“The Excellences of the Oratory”, which Newman and his companions studied in their Roman novitiate, and from which we frequently quote, was written by Fr Francesco Antonio Agnelli (1669-1749), who had himself known Blessed Sebastian Valfré (1662-1710), the re-founder of the Turin Oratory who was called the “St Philip of Turin.”
The Oratory of St Philip Neri is a deep river that has received an influx from numerous spiritual streams: the popular devotions of Roman Church pilgrimages and Eucharistic adoration, Dominican reforming thought by way of Savonarola, spiritual Franciscanism by way of the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi, the Oratorian form by way of St Catherine of Genoa, and that mysterious confraternity known as the Oratory of Divine Love, the disciplined priestly life of the early clerks regular (Barnabites and Theatines), and the reforming spirit of St Charles Borromeo. St Philip’s early eremitical life in the midst of the city of Rome, disposed him towards a fundamental sympathy, he averred, with the ancient Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.
Liberty of Spirit and the Mission of St Philip
As a young man, Filippo Neri made his way from Florence to Rome, where he earned his lodging as a tutor. He studied philosophy at the Sapienza, and theology at Sant’ Agostino. By night he would descend into the Catacombs of St Sebastian and pray for hours on end. These nocturnal visits to the meeting place of the first Christians awakened a love for the early Church and a desire to emulate her martyrs. One of St Philip’s Oratorian biographers wrote:
I think … that even in the formation of his Institute of the Oratory, Philip had before his mind the Christian society of the early ages, with its simplicity, its faith, and its charity … although the particular form of the Oratory grew out of various circumstances, his long dwelling in the Catacombs, and the habit of mind he acquired there, had a very great influence upon it. Perhaps even the title of the ‘Oratory’, and the very conception of a Congregation which should take its name from prayer, dates back to those years which he passed in almost continual prayer. (Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro, 1824-1912)
St Philip also made a practice of visiting the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome: San Giovanni Laterano, St Peter’s, San Paolo fuori le mura, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Lorenzo fuori le mura, San Sebastiano, and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Before long, Philip was surrounded by a group of friends; together they offered assistance to Roman pilgrims, visited hospitals, and devoted time during the Roman midday siesta to mental prayer, spiritual reading, conversation, and music. St Philip and his disciples were accustomed to receive the Sacraments more frequently than was usual at that time. Eventually, at the behest of his Confessor, St Philip was ordained a Priest.
Msgr Ronald Knox (1888-1957) has written of the paradoxes of St Philip’s vocation – the vocation which he bequeathed to his sons:
… an apostle of the heathen, who finds his heathen not in the remote Indies, but in the very heart and hearth of Christendom; the hermit, who looks for solitude in that most desolate of all wildernesses, a great city; the reformer of the Church who radiates influence from a cell, instead of passing resolutions in the council chamber of Trent.
Another of St Philip’s English biographers, Theodore Maynard (1890-1956), says: “Just because he did not set out to ‘influence’ people – except in the sense of making them better Christians – his influence was enormous.”
The reforming bishop of Verona, Cardinal Agostino Valier (1531-1606), depicted Philip, appropriately enough, among the fraternity of Christian humanists in his dialogue “Philip, or Christian Joy”. Another reformer and humanist, the archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti (1522-1597), represented Philip as the source and model of his own teaching in De Bono senectutis, a work which is Christian in inspiration though modelled on ancient sources. In addition to questions of spiritual life and theology, the Abbate Maffa recorded that conversations in Philip’s rooms also touched upon secular literature, which Philip loved to discuss to the end of his life. Philip excelled in the art of conversation and charmed all who spoke with him. This “Christian Socrates”, like his ancient namesake, took an interest in the many-coloured aspects of the human soul and could lay bare the depths of each encounter. Add to this his ready wit, his irony and tenderness, and one can easily divine the attractions of his company.
St Philip’s general rule was to urge his followers to become saints while living in the world. In particular, he was reluctant to encourage those attached to the papal curia, where they were presumably in a position to do great good, to pursue the solitude of a monastic existence.
Although Msgr Knox has spoken of “the sharp tang of his unwonted spirituality,” Philip did not divorce himself from the great tradition. According to the Oratorian bishop, Félix-Jules-Xavier Jourdan de la Passardière (1841-1913): “He received the most elevated and diverse gifts; he united the breadth of vision of St Dominic, the poetry of St Benedict, the wisdom of St Ignatius, and the tender and seraphic love of St Francis. One can say of this marvellous man what Pope St Gregory the Great said of St Benedict, ‘that he was filled with the Spirit of all the just’.”
The Holy Spirit indeed filled St Philip’s heart in a singular way shortly before Pentecost in 1544, while he was praying in the catacombs. A globe of fire manifested itself to him, seeming to enter his mouth and lodge in his breast; the ribs encasing his heart were broken. Philip, who both practised and promoted devotion to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, had received a kind of “stigmata of the Holy Spirit.” The true Founder of the Congregation, he would say, was not himself; it was the Holy Spirit, it was the Madonna, or it was Divine Providence, which had directed his steps without his knowing it.
The English College in Rome, founded by Gregory XIII to supply priests during the Elizabethan persecution, was situated directly opposite San Girolamo della Carità, Philip’s home for thirty-two years and the birthplace of the Oratory. Philip often met English seminarians in the streets and invariably greeted them with the words Salvete, Flores Martyrum! It was their custom upon Ordination to obtain the blessing of the old Saint before they returned to England. Generations later, under the Oxford converts Newman and Faber, St Philip’s Oratory, seemingly the most Italian of institutes, proved remarkably adaptable to English soil:
Now I will say in a word what is the nearest approximation in fact to an Oratorian Congregation that I know, and that is, one of the Colleges in the Anglican Universities. Take such a College … change the religion from Protestant to Catholic, and give the Head and Fellows missionary and pastoral work, and you have a Congregation of St Philip before your eyes. (St John Henry Newman)
As Newman said, after investigating various religious institutes for himself and his fellow converts, the Oratory “seemed more adapted than any other for Oxford and Cambridge men,” that is, liberally educated men who knew how to make good use of freedom and leisure.
A passage in Newman’s “The Idea of a University” well captures the spirit and mission of St Philip:
He lived in an age as traitorous to the interests of Catholicism as any that preceded it, or can follow it … and he perceived that the mischief was to be met, not with argument, not with science, not with protests and warnings, not by the recluse or the preacher, but by means of the great counter-fascination of purity and truth. He was raised up to do a work almost peculiar in the Church – not to be a Jerome Savonarola, though Philip had a true devotion towards him and a tender memory of his Florentine house; not to be a St Charles, though in his beaming countenance Philip had recognized the aureole of a saint; not to be a St Ignatius, wrestling with the foe, though Philip was termed the Society’s bell of call, so many subjects did he send to it; not to be a St Francis Xavier, though Philip had longed to shed his blood for Christ in India with him; not to be a St Caietan, or hunter of souls, for Philip preferred, as he expressed it, tranquilly to cast in his net to gain them; he preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.
And so 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 armour of his king. No; he would be but an ordinary individual priest as others: and his weapons should be but unaffected humility and unpretending love. (Newman “Prayer, Preaching and the Sacraments: the Apostolate of the Oratory”)
I do not know what end can be found more sublime than the one to which the Sons of St Philip are called; for their vocation consists in three things, the highest and holiest which adorn Holy Church: prayer, the administration of the sacraments, and feeding the people with the daily Word of God. Even the Apostles themselves were not called to a nobler end. (From “The Excellences of the Oratory”)
It is my opinion that the virtues are failing because we fail to speak enough of God, for I have seen and known that, as a natural consequence, the heart feels what the tongue utters; so that he whose talk is of the world grows lukewarm and worldly; he who speaks of Christ thinks of Christ. Therefore if you wish Christ to give Himself to you, you will always be ready to speak, sing or read of Christ, or else to meditate on or pray to him. (From The Life of Blessed Colombini)
Fr Faber puts the apostolate of the Oratory this way: “As a son of St Philip I have especially to do with the world, and with people living in the world, and trying to be good there, and to sanctify them in ordinary vocations.” A spirituality of everyday life, as Faber explains, is essential to the health of the Church. Holiness should be shown in an attractive and accessible light. Fr Antonio Talpa of the Naples Oratory, tells us that Philip was convinced that “the spiritual life, taken as difficult, ought to be rendered so familiar and so normal, that in every state of life, it becomes easy and agreeable … ; all, in every state and in every condition, in their private and professional life, clerics and laymen, learned or simple, noble or common, merchant or artisan, in short, all are capable of spiritual life.”
St Philip harkened back to the simplicity of the early Church above all in his stress on the interior spirit of religion and its hiddenness. Amare nesciri – love to be unknown – was one of his counsels. The Fathers and Brothers of the Oratory combine the active life and the contemplative life, and try to help men and women living in the world lead a life with prayer at its centre:
… as is love to the children of St Francis, and science to the children of St Dominic, and zeal to the family of Ignatius, and contemplative silence to the Carthusian, and the sick and dying to the household of St Camillus, and neglected peasants to the Congregation of St Alphonse, and poor children to the order of St Joseph Calasanctius, and missions to the Lazarists, and ecclesiastical sanctity to the Sulpicians, so is prayer to the Oratorian; it is the end to which he is called; it is the way in which he does his outward works; it is itself his chief work. (Fr Faber).
The union of prayer and study characteristic of the Oratory evokes the living “wisdom” of the primitive Church, so much admired by recent theological ressourcement: Those who seek only learning and do not care for spirituality may be compared to badly fed horses drawing a wagon-load of corn, who are unable to drag forth the cart when it sticks in the mire because they are not fed on the oats with which the cart they are drawing is laden. (“The Excellences of the Oratory”)
St Philip obliged his sons to pray twice a day, in the morning before doing anything else, and in the evening, at the Oratory, which prayer was also common to the laity who assembled there. Informal prayer – mental prayer, followed by the recitation of a litany – was adopted rather than the liturgical choir Office because, as Cardinal Capecelatro points out, Philip “wished to unite in it priests and men of the world.” The also distinguishes Oratorians, as Secular Clergy of a Religious Congregation, from Religious in Religious Orders.
But the Oratorian custom of corporate mental prayer does not diminish the liturgical piety of the Oratory. According to the early twentieth-century Neapolitan Benedictine abbot, Dom Fausto Maria Mezza, “in liturgical decorum and dignity the Oratorians are, by a tradition never belied, un po’ Benedettini.” Dignity and magnificence of the liturgical ars celebrandi marked the Congregations of Rome, Naples, and Turin in their great days; today in places such as Birmingham, London, Oxford, Manchester, York, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Dublin, Toronto, and Vienna, these traditions of dignified liturgy and beautiful music continue to flourish and attract many to St Philip’s Oratories.
St Philip discouraged his disciples from the impracticality of assuming burdens greater than they could perform. A little done well was much to be preferred to grand undertakings that would inevitably entail disappointment. Even while pointing his followers to the heights, he realized the need for varying the gait according to the capacity.
St Philip’s stress on individual spiritual direction and frequent Confession catered to a respect for uniqueness of individual cases. Many of his disciples confessed every day, and the rule in the early Congregation was that every Oratorian should make his confession at least three times a week. The Oratorian Cardinal and bishop of Avignon Francesco Maria Tarugi (1525-1608) wrote: “The spirit of the Congregation is not to restrict [the Sacrament of Penance] to Confession of sins alone, but to make use of it to encourage penitents in the way of well-doing and to urge them forward continually, while always keeping them under the care and discipline of their Confessors.”
Philip invented for his penitents those Spiritual Exercises that came to be the distinguishing mark of the Secular Oratory. By this means he could give penitents the instructions and exhortations for which there was no opportunity in the Confessional itself. Philip regarded the Exercises of the Secular Oratory as supplementary to the prime instrument of the Confessional.
The Exercises of the Secular Oratory can be contrasted to the famous Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, whose Long Retreat was designed to be undertaken once or twice in a Jesuit’s career to manifest God’s will for the course of his life. St Philip’s Exercises, on the other hand, were meant to foster the gradual unfolding of spiritual development, stemming not from one decisive encounter, but from daily vigilance and the quiet operation of grace.
In St Philip’s time, the most important of his Exercises, which came to be known as the Secular Oratory, or in some places the Little Oratory, was a daily practice spread out over two to three hours during the leisurely Roman siesta and consisting of (1) a period of mental prayer; (2) a reading from the Scriptures or some spiritual book (e.g., Denys the Carthusian, John Climacus, Cassian, Richard of St Victor, Gerson, Catherine of Siena, Innocent III’s De Contemptu Mundi, Serafino da Fermo’s Pharetra Divini Amoris – St Philip’s favourite readings were the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi and The Life of Blessed Colombini by Feo Belcari), followed by a “discourse on the book,” a commentary and dialogue on the subject of the reading; (3) a discourse on the life of a saint; (4) a moral exhortation – a discourse on the virtues and vices; (5) a discourse on the history of the Church; and finally (6) an oratorio or spiritual canticle. Musicians such as Giovanni Animuccia (c. 1500-1571), Choirmaster at the Lateran Basilica, and Pier Luigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), Choirmaster at St Peter’s, attended the Exercises, volunteered their services, and composed special pieces for the Oratory.
Describing the Exercises of the Oratory in Ecclesiastical Annals, the Oratorian Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607) exclaimed, “It seemed as though the ancient apostolical and beautiful method of Christian assemblies was renewed.” According to Cardinal Tarugi, “The idea of our Founder was that the Institute should have for its special and proper function the preaching of the Word of God on every day of the week, as well as on Sundays.” As Fr Antonio Talpa maintained, the originality of the Oratory:
consists principally in the daily use of the Word of God in a simple, familiar and efficacious manner, and very different from the usual style of preachers … [Philip] intended our distinctive and special Exercise, the Exercise by which we are different from other institutes, to be the Word of God, and not merely the Word of God in itself, but the Word of God preached in a familiar way.
A strong reminiscence of the origin of the Congregation of the Oratory in the Exercises of the Secular Oratory remains in the saying: “There is no Oratory without its Little Oratory.” (Having said this, it is well to note that, ever since St Philip’s work was translated to cities other than Rome, the form that the Secular Oratory should take has varied widely.)
Parochial care as such is not an essential element of the Oratorian mission, but in order to have the use of a public church Oratorians today generally serve a parish church, which may be entrusted to the direct pastoral responsibility of one or more members of the Oratorian community. Naturally, the rest of the Community also takes its turn in serving the parish, as well as carrying out additional practical apostolates such as teaching, independent scholarship, hospital and prison ministry, and other works of charity.
Santa Communità and Nido: Daily Life of the Oratory
A love for each other, a love for the Oratory as a home, is one of the chief characteristics, bonds and duties of the Fathers. (St John Henry Newman)
The peculiar characteristic of the Oratorian is to pursue the perfection of religious life without the bond of religious vows. He does not surrender his private property or embark upon a life of rigorous external penance. The perfection of Oratorian life cannot easily be identified by any external mark. An outward display of sanctity or profession of austerity is foreign to the teaching of St Philip, who emphasized, rather, humility and the counsel amare nesciri (love to be unknown).
But an indication of the form of Oratorian perfection can be found in the voluntary charity of the “common life.” Newman explains the Oratorian ideal of community in this way:
To live in community is not to be simply in one house; else the guests in an hotel form a community. Nor is it to live and board together; else a boarding-house is a community. Priests living in a chapel-house or presbytery, with each his own room, and a common table, and common duties in one church and parish, do not therefore live in community. To live in community is to form one body, in such sense as to admit of acting and being acted upon as one. … But it is obvious that such a union of wills and minds and opinions and conduct cannot be attained without considerable concessions of private judgement on the part of every individual so united. It is a conformity, then, not of accident or of nature, but of supernatural purpose and self-mastery. It is the exhibition and the exercise of a great counsel, carrying with it a great sanctification, according to the maxim, which has almost become a proverb in the Oratory: “Vita communis, mortificatio maxima.” (Community life is the greatest mortification) … This conformity of will and action, based indeed on human affection, limited to place and person, yet rising within its limits to the full dignity of that self-denying religious obedience which is the matter of one of the three vows of regulars … is the special index of its vocation and the special instrument of its perfection. Secular priests do not lead such a life: nor do religious, because the majority of them are moved from house to house. Even those religious who, like Benedictines, have stability in one monastery, are bound thereto by vows, a previous act which leaves them no scope for sustained new choices.
Therefore, according to Newman, “there is nothing to show they have the gift of living together as such, and for its own sake.” “Conformity to the will of the Congregation,” claims Newman, “and a loving submission to its will and spirit, is all in all to a Father of the Oratory, and stands in the place of all other counsels.” How rare, Newman maintains, is “this existence of an enduring domestic tie without a vow. Human affection, though the initiative principle, though the abiding support of the Oratorian vocation, is after all not its life. Its life is a supernatural grace … so were there not a real vocation, the work of a divine influence in the Oratory, its members would not keep together.” In a house of free men under the Oratorian system, every member of the Community must exercise self-discipline, tact, patience, humility, and self-effacement. Without them, St Philip’s democracy or “well-ordered republic” dissolves in chaos, and his holy liberty degenerates into license or the shameless tyranny of the clamorous and self-righteous.
As regards recruitment, St Philip preferred men beyond the immaturity of their youth and so educated as to be able to employ profitably their talents and such leisure as the day admits. Moreover, the Constitutions specify that the novice should be quasi natus, “as if born” to the Congregation:
In accepting subjects our Rule ordains that we must indeed examine whether they have the talents necessary for our Exercises, but much more whether their minds, judgement, and opinions are conformable to the spirit of the Community, and whether they are as if born for the Institute; otherwise they are harassed by their own uneasiness, which does not allow them to live in peace with any one. (The Excellences of the Oratory)
The Oratory has been a natural home for late vocations and for converts. Concerning the size of the community, Newman wrote: “I have never wished, I have never liked a large Oratory. … Twelve working priests has been the limit of my ambition.”
St Philip, Blessed Anthony Grassi (1592-1671) – all the great Oratorians, including Newman and Faber – possessed a strongly developed “sense of place.” This is another example of what Faber calls the “domestic” character of Oratorian spirituality. Each Oratory develops its own family spirit. Newman told his novices: “the objective standard of assimilation is not simply the Rule or any abstract idea of an Oratory, but the definite local present body, hic et nunc, to which [the novice] comes to be assimilated.”
St Philip’s disciples and penitents sometimes sought him out in his room, where the Exercises of the Oratory were held in the early days. The Oratorian does not emulate a monastic detachment which would periodically surrender one’s very bedroom in manifestation of the premise that material goods are merely ad usum. The Oratorian identifies his room as a nido, a “nest.” According to Newman:
The Congregation is to be the home of the Oratorian. … It is remarkable … that the Oratorian Fathers should have gone out of their way to express the idea by the metaphorical word nido or nest, which is used by them almost technically. … The Jesuits do not know the word “home”; they are emphatically strangers and pilgrims upon earth; whereas the very word “nido” is adapted to produce a soothing influence, and to rouse a fraternal feeling in the heart of an Oratorian.
In keeping with St Philip’s mission to sanctify men in their daily lives and the domestic spirituality of the Congregation, Newman says of the refectory that “it is not too much to say that it has a religious character, and may be called a sort of domestic chapel, and claims, as it is provided with, a ceremonial.” The spirit of the sanctuary should carry over into the refectory. Meals are taken according to the ordinary usage of a religious community, with public reading at the formal dinner. St Philip had also provided at the end of the meal for the discussion of two “doubts,” as they are called, that is, two debatable questions, one in moral theology and the other in scripture, with each Father speaking briefly in turn and the proposer of the doubt providing a summing-up at the end. (Although the “doubts” have been dispensed with in most contemporary Oratories, their possible retention is explicitly provided for in the revised Constitutions, which at least notionally underscores the link between the common meals and common work and study.
Recreation (coffee and conversation) follows the formal meal “in order to refresh our minds and the better to foster charity, to ask from God the first four fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, and patience”:
Here most assuredly charity is fostered by that open and general communication of our thoughts to all, as we do not speak privately to one another. The one relates a noble action, the other some piece of news, a third some interesting point of doctrine, a fourth some witty anecdote, always, however, within the bounds of modesty, and all hear them and enjoy them. Just as friendship between people in the world arises from mutual intercourse, so with us charity is nurtured by this recreation in common, and if perchance before that time there had been some little word wanting in sweetness or respect, or some shadow of suspicion between two Fathers … this speaking in common sometimes gives an opportunity for the one to address the other who has been offended, or whom he suspects of having been so, and everything is immediately cleared away; or perhaps some other Father, perceiving the little disagreement which has arisen between those two Fathers, with some delicate management or some adroit question gets them to talk together, and all is set right without any difficulty. (The Excellences of the Oratory)
Unlike St Ignatius who, for the Society of Jesus, suspended the common religious practice of recreation and forbade the building of recreation rooms in Jesuit houses, St Philip’s Oratory intends recreation to be an occasion (sometimes trying!) of forbearance and mutual edification, the asceticism of common life. Hora recreationis vinculum Congregationis, caritatis, et perfectionis.
Here also there is need of more patience than would readily be believed. As at this time all are free to speak without waiting to be asked, the conversation of one Father may not perhaps suit the tastes of all. One will begin to speak, and another would wish to say something, but politeness prevents his interrupting him, or humility suggests to him to yield; one will speak on learned or speculative subjects, and another would prefer speaking on matters of devotion; one wishes to propose cases of conscience, and another will say, “This requires too much application; I would rather say witty things, provided they are modest, to divert myself.” One likes to laugh, another is of a different disposition; and in these and other similar cases patience is certainly needed. By that patience, charity and peace are maintained, and moreover we acquire joy, that jubilus cordis of which St Bernard speaks, and which we experience when we surrender our own will for the sake of charity and the satisfaction of others. (The Excellences of the Oratory)
Excellences of the Oratory: A Vocation for Today
Well, my brothers, when shall we begin to do good? (St Philip Neri)
Diversity within unity is the basic formula of the Oratory. There is scope for individual prayer, study, and works of mercy within the bonds of the common life. Individual ministries are never divorced from the common mission of prayer, preaching, and the Sacraments:
There are many subjects in the Congregation of St Philip of great genius and talent who may be tempted to go forth out of their proper sphere. The ministry of hearing Confessions and preaching may seem to them contemptible and of very limited profit; but if they do not humble themselves they run great danger of leaving the Congregation and of working immense injury both to themselves and others by their pride and ambition. (The Excellences of the Oratory)
The mission attaching to a classical Oratorian vocation remains a timely one, as the activities under the following headings suggest:
I. Instituting a School of Prayer.
The lure of embracing a “spiritual, but not religious” posture betokens the widespread existence of a spiritual hunger which is nonetheless unaware of the conditions of genuine spiritual knowledge, and the need to embody spirituality in traditional practices and a concrete way of life. The riches of the Catholic contemplative tradition and its ascetical preliminaries today must be presented in a fresh and effective way to awaken men to the loving presence of God.
II.Promoting Spiritual Direction and Sacramental Confession.
St Philip was an apostle of frequent Confession. He saw this Sacrament as possessed of its own integrity and importance, even abstracting from its role as preparation for Holy Communion. This Sacrament will be taken up again and demonstrate its full power, when Catholics achieve greater awareness of the effects of virtue and vice in a concrete way of life. The ministry of spiritual direction can serve such an awareness.
III. Extending the liturgical movement.
The Oratory has maintained a tradition of splendour in the Liturgy, not only at Mass, but also at Solemn Vespers on Sundays and feast days. Fine liturgical music continues to be cultivated in Oratory churches. According to the French Oratorian, Fr Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) the spirit of the original Oratory was best conveyed by the music of Animuccia, who frequented St Philip’s Exercises. The Oratory can continue to contribute to the contemporary liturgical movement (which resumes and extends the older liturgical movements of the twentieth century) by its care to institute the best liturgical practices. The English Oratories, for example, celebrate both the rites of the Ordinary Form and the Usus Antiquior.
IV. Cultivating Eucharistic devotion.
St Philip and his companions were unusual for their day in the practice of frequent Communion and Eucharistic adoration. They were instrumental in introducing the Forty Hours Devotion to Rome – an extended period of continuous Eucharistic adoration, which many Oratories still pointedly celebrate with much splendour. The Oratorian tradition has also been known to mark the entire octave of Corpus Christi with special solemnity. A recent author has spoken of the “sacramental” or “embodied” mysticism of St Philip.
V. Fostering saving knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.
Distributing the daily Word of God is one of the essential works of the Oratory. The biblical scholarship of the twentieth century has enriched our Scriptural knowledge but this acquisition is still seeking its place in the tradition and life of the Church. St Philip’s “daily familiar discourse on the Word of God” can promote the integration of scripture scholarship, patristic exegesis, doctrinal development, and the renewed practice of lectio divina.
VI. Keeping alive the lore of the Saints.
Popular interest in the Saints has not waned, as an increasing number of compilations of saints’ lives and sophisticated scholarly studies bear witness, not to mention the great number of newly-canonized saints added to the official list of the Martyrology in recent years. The Exercises of the Oratory provide an appropriate place for making known the witness of holy men and women, not only in their virtues, but in the drama of their lives.
VII. Inculcating moral literacy.
Both philosophers and popular writers have evinced renewed concern with “virtue ethics,” which is part of the patrimony of the Church. The ambience of the Oratory can stimulate the dimension of moral evaluation and reasoning in practical life. The Spiritual Exercises of St Philip were vitally concerned with the acquisition and development of the virtues. Spiritual direction and the counsel of the Confessional can weave a discourse of the virtues into reflections on daily life.
VIII. Elaborating an “historical orthodoxy.”
The “historical consciousness” of contemporary man is a challenge to the proclamation of “eternal truths.” To overcome both a simplistic and unconvincing essentialism, as well as a facile and destructive historical relativism, a deeper knowledge of Church history and the development of doctrine is required. The final (and synthesizing) discourse of the Exercises of the Oratory was drawn from Church history. The Oratory has given the Church many historians, and the father of modern Church history, Cardinal Cesare Baronio, began his great scholarly work with the discourses St Philip set for him in the Oratory.
IX. Supporting cultural and intellectual endeavours.
The Oratory has demonstrated a taste for intellectual and artistic culture, especially in the domain of history and music, “the word as sound, which through the ear reaches the heart.” The contribution of the musicians Palestrina and Animuccia to the Exercises has been mentioned. Giovan Francesco Anerio’s Teatro armonico e spirituale, was dedicated to the Oratory. Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s opera Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo had its premiere in the Oratory Church of the Chiesa Nuova. About literature, Cardinal Capecelatro notes:
… proof of Philip’s wish to cherish a spirit of literary research in his Congregation is seen in his resolve that it should have a printing press of its own. It was set up in the Piazza of the Valicella, almost adjoining the house, and was placed under the direction of Andrea Brugiotti, a brother of the Oratory, and an amanuensis of Baronio’s; and hence issued the volumes of the Annals until the Vatican press charged itself with their publication.
We might also note the painters and architects patronized by St Philip and the Oratorians: the baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), who created the Roman Oratory; the painter Federico Barocci (1535-1612), who contributed two prominent altarpieces for the Oratory’s Chiesa Nuova and whom St Philip called “my Barocci.” Others painters who carried out artistic programmes in harmony with the Oratorian spirit include Cristoforo Roncalli, Rubens, and Caravaggio. The seventeenth century Oratorian Father Giovanni Severano wrote: “Limiting ourselves, then, to just the usefulness that we gain from images, we could form the opinion that these are of benefit and aid to illuminating the intellect and inflaming the emotions and will help no less than books and the Scriptures themselves.”
The Oratory also has a special intellectual resource in the voluminous writings of Saint John Henry Newman. The purity of Newman’s quest for religious truth is exemplary in modern times. His analysis of the fruitful tension among tradition, magisterium, and theological research marks out a path for acquiring the true and living mind of the Church. His sermons and essays give many helpful indications for the development of theology. His university writings have not ceased to inspire revivals of liberal education. His Oratory papers document the mediation of the Oratorian tradition to the contemporary world.
X. Encouraging a graced encounter between clerics and the laity.
The Second Vatican Council ushered in “the age of the laity,” encouraging laymen to pursue holiness in the course of daily life, promoting new lay movements, and enlarging lay participation in the activities of the Church. The Oratory was, at the first, also a lay movement, and this original lay movement has always persisted in the association of the Little Oratory (aka the Secular Oratory), always under the necessity of being re-thought and re-adapted to the needs and occasions of the times. Moreover, the stability of Oratorian life promotes familiar trust and support between clergy and laity. It is not uncommon for parishioners to be married by the same priest who baptized them.
XI. Assisting the revival of community and family life.
The crisis of the modern family has inspired the conception of the family as “domestic church.” Oratorian spirituality, too, is domestic. The “holy community” is a special kind of family, and the superior is called simply “the Father.” Among St Philip’s exercises were those including children: picnic pilgrimages to the Seven Churches of Rome, dramatics, singing, recitations, and concerts. The Oratory has a part to play in preserving a “sense of place” in the midst of a mobile, post-industrial society. The Oratory, by its life of voluntary stable community, is a resource for the revival of the communal sense in large cities.
XII. Carrying out the New Evangelization.
St Philip and his companions were so taken by their reading of the letters of St Francis Xavier from India that they considered mounting a missionary venture themselves. But upon seeking the counsel of the Prior of the Cistercian monastery at Tre Fontane, Philip was told, “Your Indies are here in Rome.” The mission of an Oratorian is to work at “home”; the Oratory is thus an apt instrument of the New Evangelization, re-proposing the gospel in formerly Christian societies. Just so, St Philip was the Apostle of Rome, who by means of the “counter-fascination of purity and truth” reconverted both clerics and laymen in the city at the centre of the Church.
This subtle influence is the only mode to which St Philip’s sons would lay claim:
Influence is exercised in the world in different ways. Sometimes men gather their intentions and their power together, and incorporate them in a visible system; and then, by the grace of God, and the persistency of their own clear and definite wills, they animate the system, and make it tell, as a momentum from without, upon the world, with its will or against its will. This is mostly, though not always, the case with the founders of religious orders; as with St Ignatius, and his wonderful Society, and so also with the great Benedictine scheme of monastic legislation. Then again there are men who do not gather their speciality up in any such cognizable way, men whose work is more general, whose spirit is more universal, and by its very penetrativeness blends with other influences, and is lost to sight, readily foregoing its claims to the praise or gratitude of men. Their work is more hidden, because their spirit is in all their works. … St Dominic’s was a definite influence in the Middle Ages. It acted upon the world, and most blessedly, from without, from a visible focus of power and heat. It had its own ascertainable shape and features, and men knew it when they saw it. … St Francis exercised a more extensive, as well as a different kind of influence. St Dominic, when the two Saints met at Rome, would fain have had the two Orders amalgamated; but St Francis had the clearer vision then, and steadfastly declined. In like manner St Ignatius asked St Philip to coalesce with him; but the holy Father would not. His influence was to be of a different kind. He sent Ignatius his first Italian novices; he was a portion, and no mean portion, of the life of all the religious orders in Rome. His speciality was not tied up in a system. What he bequeathed to his own Congregation, which was itself but one of many things which emanated from him, was not so much a Rule, as a Spirit; so that when an Oratory loses its freshness, it must die out, as if by the common law of evaporation. Neither can it be a stereotyped impression of any past state of things; for, as a spirit, though distinctive, it takes its modification from the circumstances in which it finds itself. It is a soul without a body; circumstances are its body. This is its characteristic. Its power of work is in this. (Faber)
With acknowledgement and thanks to the Toronto Oratory.