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.
-Blessed 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.
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.” … 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.
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
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:
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.
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.
The Oratory has maintained a tradition of splendor 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 Toronto Oratory and the English Oratories, for example, celebrate both the rites of the Ordinary Form and the Usus Antiquior.
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 splendor. 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.
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.
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 Martyrologium 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.
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. This is all the more essential when competing discourses such as psychologism and emotivism still largely hold sway in the public sphere.
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.
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 programs 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.”
Here Fr Faber drew attention to the “amplitude” of St Philip’s understanding of the Word of God:
Having a big sale, on-site celebrity, or other event? Be sure to announce it so everybody knows and gets excited about it.
"St Philip’s Word of God includes many things, it is not mere missionary preaching; it included Baronius’ Annals with all its secular learning. Perchance men may some day hear St Philip lecture on Physical Geography, on the dangers of Biela’s comet, or the Physiognomy of Plants in a Mechanics Institute, or on English Literature or the Principles of Poetry in a People’s Hall. … His views are anything but narrow."
The Oratory also has a special intellectual resource in the voluminous writings of Blessed 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.
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, 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.
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.
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 the 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 specialty 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 specialty 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.