The Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri is a “society of Apostolic life” founded under the guidance of the Confederation of the Oratory (based in Rome) and with the permission of the local Ordinary. The definitive foundation of an Oratorian Congregation is actually done by the Roman Pontiff directly, which makes a Congregation what is called a “Pontifical Right” foundation. An Oratory provides an opportunity for priests to live their vocation in a more structured community than what is typically experienced by diocesan priests, but with more flexibility than a religious order. Above all, it is a community of charity in the spirit of St. Philip Neri, the “Joyful Saint”.
The Oratorian resides in an Oratory community of his choosing and is permanently stable, i.e., he is not subject to transfer to other Oratories or communities. Nor does he take the vows of poverty, chastity or obedience, though the Oratorian seeks these perfections through voluntary observance.
The Oratorian vocation allows greater flexibility in pastoral work than a religious order and allows the priest to live in the same community without being periodically transferred by the local bishop. It is possible for an Oratorian to take up additional apostolates, or change his apostolate, at his own initiative and the discretion of the Oratory community, always guided by the local Ordinary. Oratorians are involved in ministries as diverse as schools, hospitals, prisons, university chaplaincies, seminary teaching, and work in curial offices in Rome. They also serve in traditional parish ministries.
The first Oratory was founded by St. Philip Neri in the 16th Century as an institute where the bond between members is one of voluntary charity rather than a formal canonical vow. The ideal of the Oratory is community life and priestly service lived in a spirit of prayer, and in which obedience is offered out of fraternal love and not through the compulsion of formally vowed obedience.
Therefore, Oratorians are not members of a religious order at all, but rather secular priests living in a community under the simple rule of fraternal love and charity. Those entering priesthood as Oratorians often do so with the intent of fulfilling their lifetime’s work in the same place.
The community life of an Oratory is very important. The Oratory community lives out its mission in fraternal charity in its place of residence, known as the “pious house”. At this house, operating like a family, they mutually support each other in service to the Church. Like in any family, the unique customs of an individual Oratory are very important. Because no vows are taken by Oratorians, this mutual support in fraternal charity is what binds them together. As a general rule, Oratorians will pray together twice a day, morning and evening, which consists of a half an hour of mental prayer each. They also take meals together and have recreation together. This structure allows Oratorians to grow in fraternal charity, while also engaging in their apostolates for the building up of the Church.
The two cardinal principles of the Oratory are:
- Attachment to an Oratorian Congregation through the bond of love and common purpose but not by vow, oath or promise. Therefore, should he wish, the Oratorian is free to leave his Congregation to join a religious order or become a diocesan priest should he decide.
- Each “house” of the Oratory is self-governing and independent of the others. There are seven Oratories in the United States. If an Oratory has a parish or diocesan ministry entrusted to it – and not all do — it is subject to the local bishop regarding parochial matters. However, in respect to its internal affairs, each Oratory it is directly subject to the Holy See by virtue of its establishment by the Roman Pontiff.
Since 1994, there has been a loose Confederation of Oratories, based in Rome, with two purposes: 1) To provide a central point of contact with the Holy See in Rome; and 2) to oversee new “houses” seeking to become independent Oratorian Congregations.
Finally, the structure of an Oratorian Congregation provides an appreciation and value of community life for pastoral and apostolic work. The Oratorian priest enjoys more opportunity for prayer, reading, and writing along with the opportunity to remain in one place to fulfill his ministry.