Community

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.

Bd 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 sustaining 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).

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)—and 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 [for use, not ownership]. 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 traditional usage of a religious community, with public reading at the formal dinner. 

St Philip had also provided at the end of the meal for the discussion of two “doubts,” as they are called, that is, two debatable questions, one in moral theology and the other in scripture, with each Father speaking briefly in turn and the proposer of the doubt providing a summing-up at the end. (Although the “doubts” have been dispensed with in most contemporary Oratories, their possible retention is explicitly provided for in the revised Constitutions, which at least notionally underscores the link between the common meals and common work and study.)

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 [the hour of recreation is the bond of the Congregation, of charity and of perfection]:

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).

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