The Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri…
…is a pontifical society of apostolic life 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 (Oratorian Fathers). This “Congregation of the Oratory” should not be confused with the French Oratory, a distinct congregation, the Society of the Oratory of Jesus (Société de l’Oratoire de Jésus), founded by Pierre de Bérulle in 1611 in Paris.
Founded in Rome in 1575 by St. Philip Neri, today it has spread around the world, with over 70 Oratories and some 500 priests. The post-nominal initials commonly used to identify members of the society are “C.O.” (Congregatio Oratorii). The abbreviation “Cong. Orat.” is also used.
Unlike a religious institute (the members of which take vows and are answerable to a central authority) or a monastery (the monks of which are likewise bound by vows in a community that may itself be autonomous and answerable directly to the Pope), the Oratorians 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., Birmingham Oratory, Oxford Oratory, Brooklyn Oratory) without actually taking vows, an unusual and innovative arrangement created by St. Philip. Normally an oratory must have a minimum of four members, two being ordained, in order to be founded. If a group of men seeks to establish an oratory, they may apply to do so, going through the proper diocesan channels; during the process of formation a member (or members) of a well-established oratory resides in the community to facilitate every aspect of the proposed foundation.
The Congregation of the Oratory was founded by St. Philip Neri (1515–1595) in the city of Rome. The first Oratory received papal recognition in 1575. The new community was to be a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but bound by no vows. Speaking of Neri, whom he called, “the saint of joy”, Pope John Paul II said, “As is well known, the saint used to put his teaching into short and wise maxims: ‘Be good, if you can’… .He did not choose the life of solitude; but, in exercising his ministry among the common people, he also wished to be “salt” for all those who met him. Like Jesus, he was equally able to enter into the human misery present in the noble palaces and in the alleys of Renaissance Rome.”
The core of St. Philip’s spirituality focused on an unpretentious return to the lifestyle of the first Disciples of Christ. The object of the institute is threefold: prayer, preaching, and the sacraments.
Up to 1800 the Oratory continued to spread through Italy, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and other European countries; in South America, Brazil, India, and Ceylon. Under Napoleon I the Oratory was in various places despoiled and suppressed, but the congregation recovered and, after a second suppression in 1869, again revived. A few houses were founded in Munich and Vienna.
There are eighty six Congregations of the Oratory throughout the world. Each Community is autonomous, but there is a Confederation which facilitates contact with the Holy See. As such, the Congregation of the Oratory functions more like a monastic federation than like a religious institute.
Three documents govern the Oratory. The first is the “General Statutes” of the Congregation, which are guidelines to be followed throughout the world; these may be changed or modified when representatives from each Oratory gather every six years in a meeting called a “Congresso Generale”. The second is the “Particular Statutes”, which outline how an individual Oratory is to be conducted; these must be approved by Rome. The third document is the “Constitutions”, which establish general norms, and outline the relationship between the Congregation and the Holy See. As the Oratory is a confederation, there is no central authority such as is found within the Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits. The definitive foundation of an Oratorian Congregation is actually done by the Roman Pontiff directly, which makes a Congregation what is called a “Pontifical Right” foundation.
The Confederation elects one of its own to represent the interests of the Congregations to the Holy See; this is done through the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This person, known as Procurator General, resides in Rome at the Procura General.
An Oratorian resides in an Oratory community of his choosing and is permanently stable, i.e., he is not subject to transfer to other Oratories or communities. Oratorians have what is called ‘stability,’ which means they are committed as members of the community of a particular Oratory, though a member may move if there is a serious enough reason. Unlike the members of a religious institute, Oratorians are not bound by a rule to pray in common, though this is something that Oratorians consider important, and they commit themselves to praying together at least twice each day, and having one communal meal which is usually dinner. Oratorians normally have a set time each day for praying together in silent meditation; this ends classically with the recitation of a litany; they may also celebrate the Eucharist in common. Although some oratories may have a dominant mission (e.g. the London Oratory, which maintains a school), in general the members of the Oratory spend the day involved in various ministries: teaching, parish work, spiritual direction, campus ministry, hospital chaplaincies, administration or maintaining the fabric of the community house. Some oratories are specifically connected with parishes and thus its members serve as clergy of the parish.
As Oratorians are secular clergy, they wear roughly the same dress as parish priests. However, the black cassock is fastened with a set of buttons curved from the top to the righthand side. In addition there is a distinctive Oratorian clerical collar which may be worn: white cloth that folds over the collar all around the neck, with a number of folds in, indicating from which particular oratory a priest originates. The cassock is bound by a sash, called a fascia. The habit is given at formal reception into the community which comes after a few months of living together to see if the candidate fits in well. Members often, but do not necessarily, wear the cassock whilst engaged in their respective ministries, as this may be deemed unsuitable. On such occasions, members of the Oratory would wear the normal street clothes of a cleric, i.e., dark suit, but with the Oratorian collar. In some countries (such as Spain) the distinctive Oratorian cassock and collar was never adopted and there is no way to tell Oratorians from other secular priests.
Oratories around the world
As of 2014, the website of the oratory’s “headquarters” in Rome lists the following as some of the numerous congregations throughout the world:
There are oratories in: Vienna, Austria; Dijon, Hyeres, and Nancy, France; Acireale, Biella, Bologna, Brescia, Florence, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Verona, Prato and Vicenza, Italy; Germany (Aachen, Aufhausen, Dresden, Frankfurt am Main, Hannover, Heidelberg, Leipzig, Celle and Munich); Lithuania (Vilnius); Netherlands (Maastricht); Poland (Gostyń, Studzianna, Tarnów, Radom, Bytow, Tomaszów Mazowiecki and Poznań); Spain (Barcelona, Seville, Porreras, Albacete, Vic, Alcalá de Henares, Getafe, Tudela, Soller and Palma) and Switzerland (Zurich). There are also Oratories in formation in Bratislava, Slovakia and Mikulov in the Czech Republic.
Cardinal John Henry Newman founded the first Oratory in the English-speaking world when he established the Birmingham Oratory in the city of Birmingham on 2 February 1848. This was initially located at Old Oscott, which Newman renamed Maryvale (after the Oratory church in Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella). After a couple of moves this community eventually settled in Edgbaston. Attached to the Birmingham Oratory was the Oratory School now at Woodcote, Berkshire, near Reading.
In 1849 a second congregation was founded in King William Street, Strand, London, with Frederick William Faber as superior; in 1854 it was transferred to Brompton. Its church, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was consecrated on 16 April 1884 and is the second largest Roman Catholic church in London.
Houses also exist in London (the London Oratory), to which is attached the London Oratory School in Fulham; Oxford (the Oxford Oratory); and Manchester (St Chad’s), a community “in formation”. As of October 2013, the church of St Wilfrid’s, York, has been turned over to the Oratorians on the retirement of the incumbent parish priest.
Latin America and the Caribbean
In Argentina: (Mercedes); Brazil: (São Paulo); Chile: (Villa Alemana); Colombia: (Bogotá, Ipiales and Pasto); Costa Rica: (San José); Mexico: (Guanajuato, Mexico City, Orizaba, Puebla, San Miguel de Allende, Tlalnepantla, Reynosa, Tamaulipas, La Paz, Leon, San Pablo Tepetlapa y Mérida.
As of 2012 there was an Oratory in Formation in Port Antonio, Jamaica (Archdiocese of Kingston). This community of priests had been constituted many years ago and upon completing the necessary requirements in the Archdiocese of Kingston in 2014 the community was erected as a Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the first in the history of the English speaking Caribbean.
In Canada, the Oratorians have a house in Toronto, although the original foundation was in Montreal in 1975.
The first Oratory in the United States was founded in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1934. The ministry of the Rock Hill Oratorians has long included campus ministry at Winthrop University and prison visitation at the Moss detention center in York County.
The principal ministry of the Brooklyn Oratory, established in 1990, is to the parish of Saint Boniface. The New Brunswick Congregation was formally established by Pope John Paul II, on September 8, 1998. The members of the Congregation serve in Catholic campus ministry at Rutgers University, at St. Peter the Apostle Parish and at St. Joseph Parish, New Brunswick, New Jersey. The New York Oratory was founded on June 28, 2007, in Sparkill, New York.
On August 1, 2014, a Community in Formation of the Oratory will be established at Star of the Sea Church in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, California.
In Washington, D.C., the Community of St. Philip Neri was established as a community-in-formation in July 2013 by canonical decree of the Archbishop of Washington, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. Washington’s Oratorians are responsible for the administration of the parish of St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park. They oversee a chapter of the Little Oratory of St. Philip Neri, a group of Catholic laymen.
In St. Louis, Missouri, USA, the St. Louis Oratory of St. Philip Neri Community in Formation was established by canonical decree of the Archbishop of St. Louis, Most Rev. Robert James Carlson, in June 2013. Other congregations are found in Monterey, California, Pharr, Texas, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A number of Oratories have associated with the congregation a community of lay people called the Secular Oratory.
The first Oratory in South Africa was founded in Oudtshoorn in 1997. The Port Elizabeth Oratory celebrated its inaugural Mass on 15 August 2008.
In 2011, work towards establishing the first Australian Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri was conceived. The community-in-formation was welcomed to Brisbane by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and is supported by the Fathers of the London, Oxford and Toronto Oratories. The moderator, Fr. Paul Chandler, is also the spiritual director of Frassati Australia which he began in 2010 with five young men. The community currently has four seminarians doing their novitiate at the Toronto Oratory.