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:

I. Instituting a school of prayer.

The attraction of a “spiritual, but not religious” posture points to the widespread existence of a spiritual hunger. Nonetheless, spiritual knowledge depends upon the embodiment of spirituality in a concrete way of living and practices that can be handed on. The riches of the Catholic contemplative tradition and its ascetical preliminaries must be presented today in a fresh and effective way to awaken men to the loving presence of God.

II. Promoting spiritual direction and confession.

St Philip was an apostle of frequent confession. He saw this sacrament as possessed of its own significance, even apart from its role as preparation for holy communion. This sacrament will demonstrate its full power as we become increasingly aware of the interplay of virtue and vice in a concrete ways of living. The ministry of spiritual direction can serve such an awareness.

III. Extending the liturgical movement.

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. 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. Fine liturgical music continues to be cultivated in Oratorian churches. As Oratorians, we can continue to contribute to the contemporary liturgical movement (which resumes and extends the older liturgical movements of the twentieth century) by our cultivation of the fullness of liturgical life. The Toronto Oratory and the English Oratories, for example, regularly celebrate both the rites of the Ordinary Form and the Usus Antiquior.

IV. Cultivating sacramental devotion.

St Philip and his companions were unusual for their day in the practice of frequent communion and Eucharistic adoration. They were instrumental in introducing Rome to the Forty Hours Devotion—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.

V. Fostering saving knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.

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 contemporary scripture scholarship, patristic exegesis, doctrinal development, and the renewed practice of lectio divina.

VI. Rediscovering the Marian Dimension of the Church.

Contemporary theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has argued that it is by participating in the ‘all- embracing form’ of Mary’s faith, even more than in obedient acceptance of Peter’s authority, that we encounter the profoundest dimension of Christian identity. Our Lady’s active fiat offered to the Incarnation emerges from the deeper level of her unrestricted receptivity to grace, and for Balthasar this is the form not only of the individual disciple but of ecclesial being itself. 

St Philip was in the habit of referring to Mary as the foundress of the Oratory. His insight was verified by several visionary experiences of the Madonna and a strong emphasis on cultivating an affinity with her as the encompassing form of Christian discipleship. With this in mind, the life of charity without vows that characterizes Oratorian existence can be interpreted as a retrieval of a more primordial Marian spirit in the Church, importantly different from the centralized and hierarchical forms of the counter-Reformation. 

Attunement to the Marian dimension of the Catholic tradition offers a guiding thread to contemporary and cultural renewal, to which Oratorian life can make an unemphatic but distinctive contribution. A beginning in this direction has already been made in the French Oratorian Louis Bouyer’s contributions to sophiology in The Seat of Wisdom: An Essay on the Place of the Virgin Mary in Christian Theology. (For more on this line of thought see Jennifer Newsome Martin, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought and Michael Martin, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics.)   

VII. Keeping alive the lore of the saints.

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.

VIII. Inculcating moral literacy.

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.

IX. Elaborating an “historical orthodoxy.”

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.

X. Supporting cultural and intellectual endeavours.

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 above. Giovan Francesco Anerio’s (ca. 1567-1630) Teatro armonico e spirituale, was dedicated to the Oratory. Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s (ca. 1550-1602) opera Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo had its premiere in the Oratorian 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 (ca. 1552-1626), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). 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:

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 Saint 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.

XI. Encouraging fellowship between clerics and the laity.

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 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.

XII. Assisting the revival of community and family life.

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.

XIII. Carrying out the New Evangelization.

St Philip and his companions were so taken by their reading of the letters of St Francis Xavier (1506-1552) 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 (Faber).

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