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
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 (1536 – 1624) 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 (Faber).
The union of prayer and study characteristic of the Oratory evokes the living “wisdom” of the primitive Church, so much admired by recent theological ressourcement:
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 places such as London, Birmingham, Oxford, Vienna, and Toronto 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.”
Philip invented for his penitents those spiritual Exercises that were the distinguishing mark of his work among the laity. 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 as supplementary to the prime instrument of the confessional.
St Philip’s Exercises 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 his 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.)
Parochial care as such is not an essential element of the Oratorian mission, but in order to have the use of a public church 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 apostolates such as teaching, independent scholarship, hospital and prison ministry, and other works of charity.