The Brothers of the Little Oratory
The Brothers of the Little Oratory is often presented to inquirers as something like an Oratorian “third order” — a group of laymen who share a closer bond with a religious order than those who customarily worship in the churches it serves. This is not a bad analogy, but it remains only an analogy. There are some important differences between the Brothers of the Little Oratory and religious third orders. First of all, the Brothers undergo no special period of training and probation; there is no Little Oratorian “novitiate.” The Brothers make no formal promises and take on no specified obligations. Just as the Oratorian Fathers themselves do not profess the classical threefold vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but rather serve voluntarily as members of the Oratory, united (as St Philip insisted) by the bond of charity alone, so also do the Brothers of the Little Oratory participate in Oratorian works on a voluntary basis. For some, the Little Oratory can involve a layman’s dedication over a lifetime. For others, participation in the activities of the Little Oratory is more occasional. Such a variation of commitment is appropriate to the nature of St Philip’s institute.
Another difference between Little Oratory and a third order is that the Little Oratory did not come third at all — that is, it was not established after male and female orders of vowed religious as a kind of pious footnote to the chief text. St Philip started his first Oratorian meetings while himself a layman, and these Oratorian gatherings were comprised of other laymen in the city of Rome. The Little Oratory could therefore, in a way, be regarded as St Philip’s “first order.” A recollection of this temporal priority is evident in a saying still current in some Oratories: “There is no Oratory without a Little Oratory.” That suggests how important this work is in our scheme of things.
Oratories resemble families: each is very much both like and unlike other Oratories. Even so do Little Oratories and their activities vary from place to place and time to time. After all, St Philip had an advantage shared by few in today’s fast-paced society. In St Philip’s time, the entire city of Rome shut down for a siesta of at least three hours in order to escape the heat of the noonday sun. Shops and offices closed; there was little for a man to do but enjoy an extended pranzo or perhaps a tryst with his mistress. The Roman siesta was ready-made for St Philip’s spiritual exercises. You could pack a lot into three hours a day, every workday. Under present circumstances, one can only hope to adapt and abbreviate this regime, as the Oratory has done ever since St Philip first taught his way.
At least three things are of the essence to St Philip’s spiritual exercises. First, the Little Oratory was meant to be a school of prayer, to be an invitation for men to pray and an encouragement for them to do it. This is part and parcel of St Philip’s mission to demonstrate that men could be holy in their homes and in the world around them. Second, the Little Oratory was intended as an occasion for men to learn the things of faith at a level beyond basic catechetical instruction. St Philip’s Little Oratory examined many things: spirituality, moral virtue, the lives of the saints, and Church history. St John Henry Newman and Fr Frederick Faber, superiors of the first two English Oratories, were of the opinion that not even these time-honoured topics exhausted the scope of St Philip’s ability to engage a layman’s spiritual concerns. Third, Little Oratory engaged men in various charitable activities — social gatherings, pilgrimages, ministering to the sick, caring for pilgrims, teaching the poor, etc.
We take all of this into account in our meetings of the Little Oratory in Toronto. We gather twice a month on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9:00 at the Oratory. We begin with a scriptural form of prayer commended by recent popes and spiritual writers — lectio divina (literally, “divine reading”). Instructions about this method are given as the year proceeds, but most importantly, we practice it together, conducting a “shared lectio divina” on the gospel of the next Sunday’s Mass. Some may desire to continue practicing lectio divina at home, using the gospel of the day or another scriptural text. We also follow St Philip’s practice of “Talking on the Book,” that is reading through a text of common interest, thinking it through, and discussing some considerations it raises up for us. Finally, we conclude with a social hour, where appropriate refreshments lubricate further discussion and foster friendships. Apart from our scheduled meetings at the Oratory, we plan to periodically undertake various practical activities in the spirit of St Philip Neri, according to the interests of the Little Oratorians.
Meetings are held from 7:30-9:00p.m. Join our facebook group for updates.