The Immutable Characteristics of the Oratory, Part 1: Common Life Without Vows

There are two characteristics of the life of the Congregation of the Oratory which are considered so essential to our unique identity that they are called “immutable”: 1) common life without vows, founded on the bond of fraternal charity, and 2) the autonomy of each Oratorian house.

“The Congregation of the Oratory was founded with only one bond, that of mutual charity, and was not bound by any vow, oath, promise, or bond of this kind. It is held together solely by this bond of charity.”
Constitutions of the Confederation of the Oratory
, n. 9

Common life without vows is a confusing idea for many, because it means that the Congregation of the Oratory does not fit neatly into the standard, traditional categories of the Church. Most Catholics are acquainted with diocesan priests, who are ordained to serve in a particular area under the direct authority of the local bishop. The priests who served at St. Peter’s from its founding until 2005 were diocesan priests. Many Catholics also know religious priests and brothers, who belong to Institutes of Consecrated Life (e.g., Franciscans, Dominicans, Brothers of the Sacred Heart). They embrace the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, by taking formal vows.

Oratorians, however, are neither diocesan nor religious. As a Society of Apostolic Life, we live an intentional community life without vows. St. Philip was not trying to found a new religious order; he was seeking to reform and renew the life and ministry of priests in his time and place. To do this, he borrowed elements from religious life, resulting in a hybrid form of community life for priests and brothers.

St. Philip was adamant that Oratorians must not take vows, but that they freely embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience each day. It is a fragile form of common life that requires maturity and dedication to live well; it depends entirely on fraternal charity, the subject of next week’s article.

Note: This article is part of our ongoing series on St. Philip Neri and the Oratory, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Philip.
Please direct any questions or comments to Fr. Jeff.

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