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Oratory of Saint Philip Neri
Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, The.—Under this head are included the Italian, Spanish, English, and other communities, which follow the rule of St. Philip Neri. The revolt of the sixteenth century, though apparently threatening in its spread and strength the very life of the Church, evoked a marvellous display of its Divine fecundity. That century saw the origin of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola; the Theatines, by St. Cajetan; the Barnabites, by St. A. M. Zaccaria; the Brothers Hospitallers, by St. John of God; the Oratory of St. Philip. The foundation of the last was laid at S. Girolamo, Rome, where his disciples gathered for spiritual instruction. Gradually these conferences took definite shape, and St. Philip, now a priest, constructed an oratory over the aisle of S. Girolamo, where they might be held; from this probably the congregation was named. In 1564 he took charge of the church of the Florentines, where his disciples who were priests said Mass and preached four sermons daily, interspersed by hymns and popular devotions. Eleven years' work at St. John's proved to the growing community the necessity of having a church of their own and of living under a definite rule. They obtained from the pope the church of S. Maria in Vallicella, rebuilt and now known as the Chiesa Nuova, where the congregation was erected by Gregory XII, 15 July, 1575. The new community was to be a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but bound by no vows. So particular was St. Philip on this point that he ruled, that even if the majority wished to bind themselves by vows, the minority who did not were to possess the property of the community. "Habeant possideant", were St. Philip's words. Another characteristic of the institute was the fact that each house was independent, and when it was represented to him, that while one house might have but a handful of members and another a surplus, both would benefit by a transference of subjects from the more numerous community, he replied, "Let each house live by its own vitality, or perish of its own decrepitude." His motive probably was to exclude the possibility of any community lingering in a state of decay.
The rule, an embodiment of St. Philip's mode of governing, was not drawn up till seventeen years after his death, and was finally approved by Paul V in 1612. The provost is elected for three years by a majority of all the decennial Fathers, i. e., those who have been ten years in the congregation. To assist him in the government of the congregation four deputies are elected. All matters of grave importance are decided by the general congregation, only the decennial Fathers voting. Admission to the congregation is also by election and the candidate must be "natus ad institutum", between the ages of eighteen and forty, and possessed of sufficient income to maintain himself. The novitiate lasts three years, and was probably thus extended to test thoroughly the vocation to an institute not bound by vows. At the conclusion of the three years the novice if approved becomes a triennial Father and a member of the congregation, but he has no elective vote till his ten years are complete, when by election he becomes a decennial. Expulsion is effected by a majority of two-thirds of the voters. No member is allowed to take any ecclesiastical dignity. Regulations for the clothing, mode of life in the community, and for the refectory are also laid down. The object of the institute is threefold: prayer, preaching, and the sacraments. "prayer" includes special care in carrying out the liturgical Offices, the Fathers being present in choir at the principal feasts, as well as assisting at the daily popular devotions. The "Sacraments" imply their frequent reception, which had fallen into disuse at the foundation of the Oratory. For this purpose one of the Fathers is to sit daily in the confessional, and all are to be present in their confessionals on the eve of feasts. The mode of direction as taught by St. Philip is to be gentle rather than severe, and abuses are to be attacked indirectly. "Once let a little love find entrance to their hearts," said St. Philip, "and the rest will follow."
"Preaching" included, as has been said four sermons in succession daily, an almost impossible strain upon the hearers as it would now appear, but the discourses at the Oratory had an attraction of their own. Savonarola had already compared the inability of the preachers of his day to awaken dead souls with their subtle arguments and their rhetorical periods, to the impotent efforts of the flute-players to revivify by their mournful music the corpse of Jairus's daughter, and Bembo in St. Philip's day reiterated this reproach. "What can I hear in sermons !", he says, "but Doctor Subtilis striving with Doctor Angelicus, and Aristotle coming in as a third to decide the quarrel." The sermons at the Oratory were free from these defects. They were simple and familiar discourses; the first an exposition on some point of the spiritual reading which preceded them, and therefore impromptu; the next would be on some text of Holy Scripture; the third on ecclesiastical history, and the fourth on the lives of the saints. Each sermon lasted half an hour, when a bell was rung and the preacher at once ceased speaking. The music though popular, was of a high order. Palestrina, a penitent of the saint, composed many of the Laudi which were sung. Their excellence excited the admiration of foreigners. John Evelyn in his diary, 8 November, 1644, speaks of himself as ravished with the entertainment of the sermon by a boy and the musical services at the Roman Oratory. Animuccia, choir master at St. Peter's, attended constantly to lead the singing. In close connexion with the Oratory is the Brotherhood of the Little Oratory, a confraternity of clerics and laymen, first formed from the disciples of St. Philip who assembled in his room for mental prayer and Mass on Sundays, visited in turn a hospital daily, and took the discipline at the exercises of the Passion on Friday. They made together the pilgrimage of the seven churches, especially at carnival time, and their devout and recollected demeanour converted many.
The "exercises", as the Oratory services were called, aroused bitter opposition. The preachers were denounced as teaching extravagant and unsound doctrine, the processions were forbidden, and St. Philip himself was suspended from preaching. He submitted at once and forbade any action being taken in his favour. At length Paul IV, having made due investigation, sent for him and bade him go on with his good work. Baronius says of these exercises that they seemed to recall the simplicity of the Apostolic times; Bacci testifies to the holiness of many under St. Philip's care. Among the most celebrated members were Baronius, author of the "Ecclesiastical Annals", and the "Martyrology", to prepare him for which work St. Philip obliged him to preach the history of the Church for thirty years in the Oratory; Bozio Tommaso, author of many learned works; B. Giovenale Ancina, Superior of the Oratory at Naples, and later Bishop of Saluzzo, a close friend of St. Francis de Sales; B. Antonio Grassi of the Oratory of Fermo; B. Sebastian Valfré, the "Apostle of Turin", and founder of the Oratory, there. The Oratory Library of S. Maria in Vallicella is celebrated for the number and quality of its contents, among them the well-known Codex Vallicensis. Up to 1800 the Oratory continued to spread through Italy Sicily, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and other European countries; in South America, Brazil, India, Ceylon, the founder of which was the celebrated missioner Giuseppe de Vaz. Under Napoleon I the Oratory was in various places despoiled and suppressed, but the congregation recovered and, after a second suppression in 1869, again revived; many of its houses still exist.
On the death of this last, at the height of the French Revolution, the congregation was unable to meet in a general assembly to elect a successor, and was soon engulfed in the revolutionary storm, which overwhelmed the Church in France; but, in dying, the Oratory again attested to its faithful attachment to the Chair of Peter. If some of the Oratorians at this time supported Constitutionalism, the great majority remained faithful to the Catholic Faith, and a certain number among them paid for their fidelity by their lives.
It was only in 1852 that the French Congregation of the Oratory was restored by Father Gratry (q.v.) and Father Pététot, the latter, who was earlier pastor of Saint-Roch de Paris, becoming first superior-general of the revived institute. In 1884 he resigned and was repIaced by Father (later Cardinal) Perraud. Father Pététot died in 1887. Father Perraud's successor, Father Marius Nouvelle, took charge of the congregation, which, greatly weakened by the persecution which reigns in France, numbers only a few members residing for the most part in Paris.
The French Oratory at various stages in its history has given a large number of distinguished subjects to the Church; preachers like Lejeune (q. v.), Massillon (q.v.), and Mascaron; philosophers like Malebranche (q.v.); theologians like Thomassin (q.v.), Morin (q.v.); exegetes like Houbigant (q.v.), Richard Simon, Duguet. One must note, however, that the last two were forced to leave the congregation where they had been trained — the former on account of the rashness of his exegesis, the latter in consequence of his Jansenistic tendencies.
Naturally, the Oratory of France exerted little direct influence in foreign countries. except through its houses, St. Louis-des-Français in Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon. In connexion with England, Father de Bérulle's mission with twelve of his confreres at the court of Henrietta of France (1625), wife of the unfortunate Charles I, must be remembered. Among the Oratorians were Father Harlay de Sancy, Father de Balfour, the latter of an old English family, and Father Robert Philips, a Scotchman and theologian of great merit, who entered the Oratory in 1617 after having been tortured for the Faith in his own country. When Protestant intolerance forced the other Oratorians to leave England, Father Philips remained as confessor to the queen, and in 1644 returned with her to France, where he died in l647. Later other English ecclesiastics joined the Oratory. Among the best known are: Father William Chalmers of Aberdeen (d. about 1660), who entered the Oratory in 1627, author of "Disputationes philosophicae" (1630) and an edition of various patristic works (1634). After leaving the Oratory in 1637, he published several other works, including "A Brief History of the Church in Scotland" (1643). Father John Whyte, of Loughill in Ireland, entered the Oratory in 1647 and died a member in 1678. He was also a noted theologian and published "Theoremata ex universa theologia" (1670). A still more distinguished member of this period was Father Stephen Gough of Sussex. At first chaplain to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and doctor and Oxford, he was converted to Catholicism by the Oratorians of the court of Henrietta of France, whom we mentioned above, and in 1652 entered the Oratory of Paris, at the age of twenty-seven. The general of the Oratory, Father Bourgoing, stationed him at Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, near Paris, at the head of a seminary for English Catholic priests which he had founded, and for which the English clergy thanked the Oratory in a beautiful letter of congratulation. From 1661 Father Gough lived in Paris as almoner of the Queen of England. He died of apoplexy in 1682, without publishing the commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul with immediate reference to the Protestant controversy, which he had been preparing for many years. In contrast to this illustrious convert is Father Levassor of Orléans, who entered the Oratory in 1667. A man of ability, but, according to Batterel, "too fond of sport and good cheer", he ended by leaving the Oratory and apostatizing, and died in England in 1718, a canon in the Established Church.
A. M. P. Ingold.