The Oratory of St Philip Neri
The Oratory of Saint Philip Neri is a congregation of Catholic priests and lay-brothers who live together in a community bound together by no formal vows but only with the bond of charity. They are commonly referred to as Oratorians.
This way of life originated from St Philip Neri’s efforts to make the word of God and the life of virtue accessible and attractive to the laity and, in fact, to all people of Rome in the sixteenth century. The revolt of the sixteenth century, though apparently threatening in its spread and strength the very life of the Church, evoked a marvellous display of Divine Providence. That century saw the origin of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola; the Theatines, by St. Cajetan; the Barnabites, by St. A. M. Zaccaria; the Brothers Hospitallers, by St. John of God; and certainly not least of all, the Oratory of St. Philip.
The foundation of the Oratory was laid at San Girolamo, Rome, where St Philip’s disciples gathered for spiritual instruction. Gradually these conferences took definite shape, and St. Philip constructed an oratory over the aisle of S. Girolamo, where they might be held.
In 1564 he took charge of the church of the Florentines, where his disciples who were priests said Mass and preached four sermons daily, interspersed by hymns and popular devotions. Eleven years’ work at St. John’s proved to the growing community the necessity of having a church of their own and of living under a definite rule. They obtained from the pope the church of S. Maria in Vallicella, rebuilt and now known as the Chiesa Nuova (new church), where the congregation was erected by Pope Gregory XII, 15 July, 1575. The new community was to be a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but, unlike in a religious order, bound by no vows.
Oratories (of which today there are over 80 Oratories around the world and some 500 priests) are made up of members who commit themselves to membership in a particular, independent, self-governing local community (an Oratory, usually named for the place in which it is located: e.g., Port Elizabeth Oratory, Oudtshoorn Oratory) without actually taking vows.
Oratorians have what is called ”stability”, which means they are committed as members of the community of a particular Oratory. An Oratory is a “house of prayer” and the community consider themselves “contemplatives in action”. Prayer and the community life is of the utmost importance, but this interior life is lived out in various apostolates. Although some oratories may have a dominant mission, in general the members of the Oratory spend the day involved in various ministries: teaching, parish work, spiritual direction, chaplaincies, administration or maintaining the fabric of the community house. Most oratories are specifically connected with parishes and thus its members serve as the parish staff.
St Philip said, "Let each house live by its own vitality, or perish of its own decrepitude." His motive probably was to exclude the possibility of any community lingering in a state of decay. Each Oratory is therefore an autonomous community, but these communities have federated themselves as a congregation which establishes common practices and preserves a common heritage of style of spirituality. As such, the Congregation of the Oratory functions more like a monastic federation than like a religious order.As the Oratory is a confederation, there is no central authority such as is found within the Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits. Each oratory is established by the Holy See.
The “rule”, an embodiment of St. Philip’s mode of governing, was not drawn up until seventeen years after his death, and was finally approved by Paul V in 1612, but it is the Spirit of St Philip that is most important.
The object of the congregation is threefold: prayer, preaching, and the sacraments. Particularly the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important work of the Oratorian priest. St Philip was known as a great confessor, known to have been gentle rather than severe. “Once let a little love find entrance to their hearts”, said St. Philip, “and the rest will follow”. Oratories are houses of prayer, living and preaching Christ and always striving to bring people to the Lord with love and joy in their hearts.
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