The Oratory

Whatever else can be said about the Oratory and its members, and there is a great deal to say, its fundamental aspect is simply about prayer, and prayer done simply.

The intimate union of God and the soul, our offering of each moment to God, is the life of prayer, which spills over into love of neighbour and the joyful sanctification of the whole of creation.

There are various forms and ways of praying; silent, mental, devotional, liturgical, solitary, communal, and so on, and all these are captured in the life of St Philip.

In many ways its 'horses for courses'; one person's way of prayer will be different from another's. As we change and the circumstances of our lives change, so too will our prayer. All of that variety between people, or even in one's own life, is the sign of a living relationship.

Which of those styles we choose doesn't really matter, as long as we learn to speak freely to God about absolutely anything and everything, without any fear or worry, without etiquette or politeness. That's real humility and from that comes real joy, which are seen to a remarkable degree in St Philip.

Given this basic premise then we can go on to say that there are two aspects to the Congregation of the Oratory:

The first aspect comprises the priests and brothers who live according to the way of life of St Philip Neri. They are secular priests and brothers (i.e. they are not Religious like monks, friars, clerks and canons regular), which means they do not take any vows. They choose to live together as a family following the pattern of life and ministry of St Philip adapting it to wherever they have their home. They each have their distinctive ministry in the house, parish and city, and come together each day to pray, eat and find refreshment in each other's company. Each member comes with the intention of remaining until death in the same house. Each Oratory is independent, so can adapt the charism of St Philip to its own area and people. Members are attracted to a place and to a community, and that is the scope of their life and work, which will be molded according to the pattern of St Philip.

The second aspect comprises of the lay-people who attach themselves to the community. St Philip founded a lay organisation, with not much more intention than that. He involved lay-people in sermons, music, liturgical celebrations, recreation, pilgrimages, devotions, conferences, and so on, and so brought many thousands to God in pleasant ways. This is the Oratory which the clerical members serve, following the same sort of pattern that St Philip did in 16th century Rome.

All the good and bad of the city of Rome in St Philip's day is to be found in every city at every time (St Paul's letters witness to the same characteristics in his day). St Philip's charism in leading men and women to God by rejoicing in the good and avoiding the bad is a wholesome way for a Catholic to engage in culture. It is an evangelical spirit which can see the reality of things, where the glass is always at least half-full. The members of the Oratory engage in just such a way, but amongst small groups of people rather than through national and international movements.

Blessed John Henry Newman, who founded the Oratory in England, wrote about this interpersonal method of engagement several times. His advocacy of 'personal influence' through the tutorial system in the Oxford Colleges, his vast correspondence, and the personal appropriation of faith in the 'Grammar of Assent' all show this. To illustrate the vocation of the Oratorian he famously contrasted the sons of St Philip and the sons of St Ignatius. In talks given to his brother Oratorians at Birmingham Newman tried to articulate the specific genius of a religious community as lived in the spirit of St. Philip. In one of these Newman goes back to the funeral oration of Pericles, as reported in Thucydides, and in particular to the famous passage in which Pericles contrasts the Athenian and the Spartan. Newman wants to say that the genius of Athens, once it is baptized and made the principle of a religious community, yields the spirit of the Oratory. “The point of the Orator’s [Pericles’] praise of the Athenians is this, that they, unlike the Spartans, have no need of laws, but perform from the force of inward character those great actions which others do from compulsion. Here the Oratorian stands for the Athenian, and the Spartan for the Jesuit.”

This means for Newman that in the Oratory, as in Athens, personal influence has a natural home. As he writes, "Obedience to the official Superior is the prominent principle of the Jesuit; personal influence is that of the Oratorian." And again, "[The] Jesuit fathers are part of a whole, but each Oratorian stands by himself and is a whole, promoting and effecting by his own proper acts the wellbeing of the community.” Newman goes on to explain what he means by “his own proper acts”: “It is the common sense, the delicacy, the sharp observation, the tact of each which keeps the whole in harmony. It is a living principle, call it (in human language) judgment or wisdom or discretion or sense of propriety or moral perception, which takes the place of formal enactment” and of commands and prohibitions."

So whatever an Oratorian does, he does so with this freedom to make decisions according to his own reading, understanding and judgement of the situation. He asks the Holy Spirit to guide this work, and then acts simply, trusting that the same Holy Spirit will bring the work to fruition. All of this is accomplished in love, and that is the only test that stands in the last analysis.