What is the oratory?

You may say that this is but a small company of volunteers compared with the disciplined forces of the religious bodies which sustain the church with so much strength and splendor; and you are right. But, although it may be a small band, it is still a reinforcement, 

and sometimes a small reinforcement arriving at the critical moment of the battle is worth the whole strength of the army by enabling it to gain a complete victory.

-From the Excellences of the Oratory

The subjects of the Congregation are fishers and not hunters of souls, therefore they must seek to gain them quietly and gently. A fisherman throws his net or hook in silence, and the fish knows not that it is sought until it is taken; the huntsman scours the country with loud cries and firearms, and his prey takes fright, flies, and if possible escapes and hides. We may compare missionaries to huntsmen, but a Philippine must content himself with being a fisherman, and leave the trade of hunting to those generous souls who are called thereto by God. 

-From the Excellences of 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. (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.) The bond of this institute is thus said to be charity alone. 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, Blessed 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.

Our Oratorian community in Washington looks to Newman, Faber and the English Oratory for its inspiration in living out the spirit of St Philip and his call to holiness in the twenty-first century.

Who was St. Philip Neri?

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, Cardinal Alfonso Capecelatro (1824-1912), said:

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.

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 usual. 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.

The thing he stood for and stands for … is what devotional authors have called the liberty of the spirit. … Reforms brought in from above may change the habits of society without changing its heart. You may repress luxury without repressing the love of luxury; you may drive paganism into the catacombs, but it is paganism still. Organization and discipline, the multiplying of rules and methods whether for clergy or laity, produce little effect unless they are freely accepted by the will; they develop scruples in the timorous, command but a lifeless acquiescence from the indifferent. 

As another of St Philip’s English biographers, Theodore Maynard (1890-1956), put it: “Just because he did not set out to ‘influence’ people—except in the sense of making them better Christians—his influence was enormous.”

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 marvelous man what 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 practiced 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. 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.

What do Oratorians do?

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 (a favorite book of St Philip)

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.

-Father Faber

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.”

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 Oratorian communities throughout the world this tradition is still cherished.

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.”

The Secular oratory

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 only fair to note that ever since St Philip’s work was translated to cities other than Rome, the shape that the Secular Oratory should take has been a matter of discussion and concern.)

Brothers of the Little Oratory

We established the Little Oratory here in Washington in January 2014 and there are currently about thirty men who are enrolled as brothers, with an age range of 20-75. The Brothers meet on Wednesday evenings and observe the following program:

7pm Spiritual Conference in Church

7.20pm Silent Prayer

7 .35pm Litany of St Philip, Prayer to St Philip, Veneration of the relic of St Philip

7.45pm Recreation in the Oratory House

8.15pm Notices and Q & A

9pm Final Blessing

Secular Oratory

The Secular Oratory is open to everyone and meets on a Saturday once a month for a morning of recollection in accordance with the following program:

8am Confessions

8.30am Sung Mass

9.30am Breakfast in the Parish Hall

10.20am Spiritual Conference

11am Litany of St Philip, Prayer to St Philip

11.05am Exposition of the Blessing Sacrament (with an opportunity for Confession)

11.45am Benediction

12 noon Mass

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. At the time of the foundation of our community in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, entrusted the parish of St Thomas, Apostle, Woodley Park to the care of our community, appointing one of our priests as pastor.