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Oblati (Oblatæ, Oblates) is a word used to describe any persons, not professed monks or friars, who have been offered to God, or have dedicated themselves to His service, in holy religion. It has had various particular uses at different periods in the history of the Church. The children vowed and given by their parents to the monastic life, in houses under the Rule of St. Benedict, were commonly known by the name during the century and a half when the custom was in vogue, and the councils of the Church treated them as monks — that is, until the Council of Toledo (656) forbade their acceptance before the age of ten and granted them free permission to leave the monastery, if they wished, when they reached the age of puberty. At a later date the word "oblate" was used to describe such lay men or women as were pensioned off by royal and other patrons upon monasteries or benefices, where they lived as in an almshouse or hospital. In the eleventh century, it is on record that Abbot William of Hirschau or Hirsau, in the old Diocese of Spires, introduced lay brethren into the monastery. They were or two kinds: the fratres barbati or conversi, who took vows but were not claustral or enclosed monks, and the oblati, workmen or servants who voluntarily subjected themselves, whilst in the service of the monastery, to religious obedience and observance. Afterwards, the different status of the lay brother in the several orders of monks, and the ever-varying regulations concerning him introduced by the many reforms, destroyed the distinction between the conversus and the oblatus. The Cassinese Benedictines, for instance at first carefully differentiated between conversi, commissi, and oblati; the nature of the vows and the forms of the habits were in each case specifically distinct. The conversus, the lay brother properly so called, made solemn vows like the choir monks, and wore the scapular; the commissus made simple vows, and was dressed like a monk, but without the scapular; the oblatus made a vow of obedience to the abbot, gave himself and his goods to the monastery, and wore a sober secular dress. But, in 1625, we find the conversus reduced below the status of the commissus, inasmuch as he was permitted only to make simple vows and that for a year at a time; he was in fact undistinguishable, except by his dress, from the oblatus of a former century. Then, in the later Middle Ages, oblatus, confrater, and donatus became interchangeable titles, given to any one who, for his generosity or special service to the monastery, received the privilege of lay membership, with a share in the prayers and good works of the brethren.
Canonically, only two distinctions were ever of any consequence: first, that between those who entered religion "per modum professionis" and "per modum simplicis conversionis" the former being monachi and the later oblati; secondly, that between the oblate who was "mortuus mundo" (that is, who had given himself and his goods to religion without reservation), and the oblate who retained some control over his person and his possessions — the former only (plene oblatus) was accounted a persona ecclesiastica, with enjoyment of ecclesiastical privileges and immunity (Benedict XIV, "De Synodo Dioce.", VI).
Congregation of Oblates: Women
(1) The first society or congregation of oblates was that founded in the fifteenth century by St. Frances of Rome, to which the name of Collatines has been given — apparently by mistake. St. Frances, wife of Lorenzo Ponzani, gathered around her (in 1425, according to Baillet) a number of widows and girls, who formed themselves into a society or confraternity. In 1433, as their annals witness, she settled them in a house called Tor de' Specchi, at the foot of the Capitol, giving them the Rule of St. Benedict and some constitutions drawn up under her own direction, and putting them under guidance of the Olivetan monks of S. Maria Nuova. In the same year she asked confirmation of her society from Eugenius IV, who commissioned Gaspare, Bishop of Cosenza, to report to him on the matter, and some days later granted the request, with permission to make a beginning of observance in the house near S. Maria Nuova, while she was seeking a more commodious habitation near S. Andrea in Vinci. The have never quitted their first establishment, but have greatly enlarged and beautified it. The object of the foundation was not unlike that of the Benedictine Canonesses in France — to furnish a place of pious seclusion for ladies of noble birth, where they would not be required to mix socially with any but those of their own class, might retain and inherit property, leave when it suited them, marry if they should wish, and, at the same time, would have the shelter of a convent enclosure, the protection of the habit of a nun, and the spiritual advantages of a life of religious observance. They made an obligation of themselves to God instead of binding themselves by the usual profession and vows. Hence the name of oblates. The observance has always been sufficiently strict and edifying, though it is permitted to each sister to have a maid waiting on her in the convent and a lackey to do her commissions outside. They have a year's probation, and make their obligation, in which they promise obedience to the mother president, upon the tomb of St. Francis of Rome. There are two grades amongst them: "Most Excellent", who must be princesses by birth, and the "Most Illustrious", those of inferior nobility. Their first president was Agnes de Lellis, who resigned in favour of St. Frances when the latter became a widow. After her death, the Olivetan general, Blessed Geronimo di Mirabello, broke off the connection between the oblates and the Olivetans. The convent and treasures of the sacristy have escaped appropriation by the Italian government, because the inmates are not, in the strict sense, nuns.
(2) Differing little from the Oblates of St. Frances in their ecclesiastical status, but unlike in every other respect are the Donne Convertite della Maddalena, under the Rule of St. Augustine, a congregation of fallen women. They had more than one house in Rome. Without any previous noviceship, they promise obedience and make oblation of themselves to the monastery of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Lucy. At Orvieto there are similar houses of oblate penitents under the Rule of Mount Carmel.
(3) The Congregation of Philippines (so called after St. Philip Neri, their protector), founded by Rutilio Brandi, had the care of 100 poor girls, whom they had brought up until they either married or embraced religion. These oblates began religious observance at S. Lucia della Chiavica, were transferred to Monte Citorio, and, when the convent there was pulled down by Innocent XII in 1693, returned to S. Lucia. They adopted the Augustinian Rule.
(4) The Daughters of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin, a development out of some confraternities of the same name, founded by St. Philip Benizzi, established a house at Rome in 1652. Their object was to take in infirm women who would not be received in other congregations. They followed the Augustinian Rule and promised stability, conversio morum, and obedience according to the constitutions.
Congregation of Oblates: Men
(1) Earliest in origin of the societies or congregations of priests known as oblates is that of St. Charles Borromeo. It is an institute of regular clerks, founded by the saint in 1578 for the better administration of his diocese and to enable the more spiritual-minded of his clergy to lead a more detached and unworldly life. They live, whenever and wherever it is possible, in common. The make a simple vow of obedience to their bishop and, by doing so, bind themselves to exceptional service and declare their willingness to undertake labours for the salvation of souls, which are not usually classed among the duties of a parish priest. From their constitution it is evident that their usefulness and development, and even existence, depend on the bishop and the interest he takes in them. At present, they are nowhere a large or important body, and perhaps do not meet with the encouragement they deserve.
(2) The greatest and best-known congregation of oblate priests, that of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), is dealt with in a special article. Connected with the institute and under its direction are the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Family.
(3) The Oblates of Mary, not to be confounded with those of Mary Immaculate or with the Marists, are a society of Piedmontese priests founded in 1845. They have houses at Turin, Novara, and Pinerolo, and send missionaries to Burma, Ava, and Pegu in the East Indies.
(4) By a decree of Pope Leo XIII, dated 17 June, 1898, the Oblati seculares O.S.B. — that is, those who have received the privilege of the scapular, and, for their friendliness and good offices, have been admitted as confratres of any Benedictine monastery or congregation — are now granted all the indulgences, graces, and privileges conceded to those of any other congregations, more particularly the Cassinese. The pope further states that, since Benedictine Oblates cannot, at the same time, be tertiaries of the Franciscan or any other order, it is "congruous" that they should have peculiar privileges. He, therefore, grants them the plenary indulgence on the day of clothing and the chief feasts of oblates, etc.; twice a year the blessing in the encyclical letters of Pope Benedict XIV; the general absolution which tertiaries are able to receive on certain days during confession, with the plenary indulgence annexed to it (adhibita formula pro Tertiariis præscripta); the special plenary indulgence at the hour of death (observetur ritus et formula a constitutione P.P. Bened. XIV "Pia Mater"); an indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines every time they hear Mass corde saltem contriti — in a word, all and each of the privileges and favours granted to the lay tertiaries of St. Francis and other orders.
Hélyot, t. des ordres mon.: Migne, Dict. des ord. rel.; Goschler, Dict. encycl. de la théol. cath., s. v. Oblats; Calmet, Comment. in Reg. S. P. Benedicti; Heimbucher, Die Orden u. Kongreg. der kath. Kirche (Paderborn, 1907-8).
J. C. Almond.