Oratorian Origins

You may say that this is but a small company of volunteers compared with the disciplined forces of the religious bodies which sustain the church with so much strength and splendor; and you are right. But, although it may be a small band, it is still a reinforcement, and sometimes a small reinforcement arriving at the critical moment of the battle is worth the whole strength of the army by enabling it to gain a complete victory.

from The Excellences of the Oratory

The subjects of the Congregation are fishers and not hunters of souls, therefore they must seek to gain them quietly and gently. A fisherman throws his net or hook in silence, and the fish knows not that it is sought until it is taken; the huntsman scours the country with loud cries and firearms, and his prey takes fright, flies, and if possible escapes and hides. We may compare missionaries to huntsmen, but a Philippine must content himself with being a fisherman, and leave the trade of hunting to those generous souls who are called thereto by God. 

from The Excellences of the Oratory

The Oratory founded by St Philip Neri (1515-1595) is a society of priests and brothers who live together under a Rule without taking religious vows.

St Philip was ordained in 1551 and canonized in 1622. The official date for the beginning of the Exercises of the Oratory is 1558, but we know that they were held already in the attic of San Girolamo in 1555. The Congregation of the Oratory was given formal approval in 1575. 

The bond of this institute is thus said to be charity alone. Oratorians work for the glory of God and the good of their neighbours, free to resign their membership in the Congregation without canonical impediment or ecclesiastical dispensation. Hence the daily Oratorian prayer for perseverance and the old saying that “true sons of St Philip are known at their burial”:

Behold the model of the sons of St Philip who, in imitation of their Saviour, do what they do in the service of God spontaneously and of their own free will, and can say with Him, Voluntarie sacrificabo tibi, out of zeal for the glory of God, for the salvation of souls, and for their own greater perfection. … The beauty of our Congregation lies in our subjects not being imprisoned, or bound by the chains of rigorous laws, but by love, which is stronger than death itself. … This, then, is the prerogative of our subjects, always to have the liberty of abandoning the Congregation, and yet not to abandon it through love and fidelity to our vocation (from The Excellences of the Oratory).

Each Oratory, observing the way of life introduced by St Philip in the Roman Oratory, forms an individual community, independent of all other Oratories, flourishing or withering on its own. St Philip did not compose a Rule but inaugurated a way of life, and his Oratory has been more attuned than traditional religious orders to the spirit of freedom and the need for adapting its traditions to the requirements and opportunities of time and locality. But as a little ship in need of balance, Oratories have also been wary of sweeping changes. The Oratorian ethos is not a literary invention or a recently-forged improvisation; it is a living tradition. Catholic converts, Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Fr Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), brought the developed form of Oratorian life to England shortly before many Italian Oratories disappeared during the Risorgimento. Newman the Oratorian characterized his founding work in this way: “We shall do our best to import a tradition, not to set up something for ourselves, which to me is very unpleasant.” In turn, the Toronto Oratory was established in close consultation with the London and Birmingham Oratories. The Excellences of the Oratory, which Newman and his companions studied in their Roman novitiate and from which we frequently quote in the pages that follow, was written by Fr Francesco Antonio Agnelli (1669-1749), who had himself known Blessed Sebastian Valfré (1629-1710), the re-founder of the Turin Oratory who was called the “St Philip of Turin.”

The Oratory of St Philip Neri is a deep river that has received an influx from numerous spiritual streams: the popular devotions of Roman Church pilgrimages and Eucharistic adoration, Dominican reforming thought by way of Savonarola, spiritual Franciscanism by way of the Laudi of Jacopone da Todi, the Oratorian form by way of St Catherine of Genoa and that mysterious confraternity known as the Oratory of Divine Love, the disciplined priestly life of the early clerks regular (Barnabites and Theatines), and the reforming spirit of St Charles Borromeo. St Philip’s early eremitical life in the midst of the city of Rome, disposed him towards a fundamental sympathy, he averred, with the ancient Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.

The present Toronto Oratory began its life in Montreal in the early 1970s, where the Oratory was canonically erected in 1975, before the invitation of Cardinal Carter brought us to Toronto in 1979.

Our founder, Fr Jonathan Robinson, ordained in Rome in 1962, was subsequently appointed secretary to Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger. Afterwards, combining priestly work with teaching philosophy at McGill (where he was for a period Chairman of the Department), Fr Robinson began the experiment of living in community according to the rule and inspiration of the Oratory of St Philip Neri.

From its numerically modest beginnings in Montreal, the Toronto Oratory has grown steadily to its present sixteen members (including twelve priests, one lay brother, and more brothers in priestly formation), making it the largest of the dozen or so English-speaking Oratories worldwide.

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