Catholic Encyclopedia – The Oratory of Saint Philip Neri

[Saint Philip Neri]Article

Under this head are included the Italian, Spanish, English, and other communities, which follow the rule of Saint 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 Saint Ignatius Loyola; the Theatines, by Saint Cajetan; the Barnabites, by Saint A. M. Zaccaria; the Brothers Hospitallers, by Saint John of God; the Oratory of Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 San 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint Philip’s care. Among the most celebrated members were Baronius, author of the “Ecclesiastical Annals”, and the “Martyrology”, to prepare him for which work Saint 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 Saint 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.

English oratorians

The Oratory was founded in England by Cardinal Newman in 1847. Converted in 1845, he went to Rome in 1846 and with the advice of Pius selected the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri as best adapted for his future work. After a short novitiate at Santa Croce he returned in 1847 with a Brief from Pius IX for founding the Oratory. He established himself at Maryvale, Old Oscott, where in 1848 he was joined by Father Faber and his Wilfridian community. After a temporary sojourn at Saint Wilfrid’s, Staffordshire. and Alcester Saint, Birmingham, the community found a permanent home at Edgbaston, a suburb of that town in 1854. The institute of the English congregation is substantially that of the Roman. The Fathers live under Saint Philip’s Rule and carry out his work. In compliance with a widely expressed wish of English Catholics, Cardinal Newman founded at Edgbaston a still flourishing higher class school for boys. A Brotherhood of the Little Oratory is also attached to the community and the exercises are a focus of spiritual life. Among the best known writers of the English Oratory are, besides its illustrious head, Father Caswell, a poet, Father Ignatius Ryder, a controversialist and essayist, and Father Pope. A Newman memorial church in the classical style was opened in 1910. The library contains among many valuable works Cardinal Newman’s series of the Fathers.

The London Oratory

In 1849 Cardinal Newman sent a detachment of his community to found a house in London. Premises were secured at 24 and 25 King William Saint, Strand, a chapel was speedily arranged and on 31 May, Cardinal Wiseman assisted pontifically and preached at the high Mass, Father Newman delivered at Vespers the sermon on the “Prospects of the Catholic Missioner”, now published in his “Discourses to Mixed Congregations”. The Catholic Directory of 1849 shows that the Oratory at King William Saint was the first public church served by a religious community to be opened in the diocese. The exercises of the Oratory, accompanied as they were with hymns composed by Father Faber and the Roman devotions and processions, then strange to England, seemed to many a hazardous innovation. Time proved the popularity of the exercises, and Father Faber’s preaching attracted large crowds. His spiritual works published year by year increased the interest in his Oratory, while the lives of the saints edited by him, forty-two in number, in spite of their literary defects, did a great work in setting forth the highest examples of Christian holiness. The community removed to their present site in South Kensington in 1854, and in 1884 their new church was opened in the presence of the bishops of England. Among the writers of the London Oratory may be named, after Father Faber, Father Dalgairns, Father Stanton, “Menology of England and Wales” (London, 1887); Father Hutchison, “Loreto and Nazareth” (London, 1863); Father Knox, “The Douai Diary” (London, 1878), and “Life of Cardinal Allen” (London, 1882); Father Philpin de Rivière, “The Holy Places”, and other works; Father John Bowden “Life of Fr. Faber” (London, 1869); Father Morris “Life of Saint Patrick”; and Father Antrobus, translator of Pastor’s “Popes” (vols. I – VI, Saint Louis, 1902) and the “Pregi dell’ Oratorio”.

MLA Citation

  • Henry Sebastian Bowden. “The Oratory of Saint Philip Neri”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 26 May 2013. Web. 30 September 2014. <>