The Oratorian vocation is that of the threefold ministry given to the Apostles: prayer in common, the administration of the sacraments, and the daily Word of God. The virtues especially cultivated by Oratorians are charity, submission of the individual’s will to the collective mind of the community, and loving to be unknown.
An Oratorian’s main apostolate is to be ‘at home’ to those who come to the Oratory house and church for spiritual guidance. He may also be called on to do parish work. In imitation of St. Philip, priests of the Oratory are assiduous in visiting the sick, at home and in hospitals.
Oratorians live together in community, but unlike Religious they do not take vows. The bond which keeps all members of the community together, whatever their background, is charity. Just as a member of the community is bound by charity rather than by vows to obey his superior, the superior (the Provost) is obliged by the same bond of charity to govern with discretion, gentleness and prudence. Neither is there any vow of poverty; Oratorians may keep their possessions, and those who can afford it are expected to pay a contribution to the house.
An Oratorian is expected by the same bond of charity to observe most carefully the timetable and customs of his community. In addition to celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments, this means praying together, and taking the communal meal together in the refectory, followed by a brief period of recreation. Oratorians do not sing or recite the Divine Office together in choir, except for Vespers on Sundays and the major feastdays.
Although not tied to his house by vows and so always free to leave, an Oratorian chooses to join one house for life, and only in exceptional circumstances would he leave to join another Oratory. Thus there is a ‘stabilitas logii’ in the Oratorian way of life similar to that of Benedictines. Fathers of the Oratory may not accept ecclesiastical dignities. No Oratorian may become a bishop, unless commanded to do so by the Pope. No Oratorian should ever wish for or seek ecclesiastical preferment. He is to live his vocation within the community, humbly loving to be unknown. In 1590 St. Philip had to beg Pope Gregory XIV most insistently not to make him a Cardinal.
Oratorian spirituality is especially marked by fervent devotion to God the Holy Spirit, to the Blessed Sacrament, and to the Madonna.
In 1544, shortly before the Feast of Pentecost and while still a layman, Philip was praying one night in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian. A ball of fire appeared, entered his mouth and sank down into his heart. So began the frequent palpitations and unusual tremblings which were to remain with Philip for his whole life, and which were an extraordinary consolation to penitents who pressed their heads to his breast. St. Philip himself, always cautious with regard to miracles, attributed this to the Holy Spirit. After his death his heart was found to be greatly enlarged and two of his ribs forced outwards and broken. Oratorians often say this prayer: “O Lord, we beseech Thee, let the Holy Spirit inflame us with the same fire with which he did wonderfully penetrate the heart of Blessed Philip Thy Confessor.”
St. Philip played a leading part in promoting the daily celebration of Mass and frequent confession, both rare practices in his own day. During his years as a layman in the city, he was part of the Fraternity of the Most Holy Trinity for Pilgrims and Convalescents, the guild credited with introducing the Forty Hours Devotion to Rome from Milan.
St. Philip held that the true Founder of his Oratory was the Mother of God. When the old church at Santa Maria in Vallicella was being dismantled to make way for the Chiesa Nuova, Philip had a corner left standing for a temporary chapel to house the Blessed Sacrament and a picture of the Madonna. One day he sent an urgent message that he had seen Our Lady holding up the roof of the chapel because it was about to collapse. The workmen later discovered a loose beam. On another occasion towards the end of his life, Our Lady appeared to Philip on his sickbed. She is the special patron of all the sons of St. Philip.
Before accepting someone as a member of the Congregation, it must be discerned whether or not he has the aptitude for community life. In addition to being ‘maxime idoneus’ (most suitable) he should also give some sign of being ‘quasi natus’ (as if born) to the Congregation. Some experience of life and work in the world might be a useful preparation before entering.
It is possible for someone who has already been ordained a secular priest outside the Oratory to join the Community if he feels called to a more recollected and more mortified life than is possible in a diocesan presbytery. The Constitutions do not permit anyone who has been a solemnly professed religious to join the Congregation. Neither is it customary to readmit anyone who has left the Oratory, nor to admit anyone who had left another Oratory, nor anyone over the age of forty five.
Before a man applies to join this Oratory (Birmingham), we generally require that he should have frequented our church for at least one year, taking one of the Fathers here as his regular confessor. The noviciate lasts three years during which a novice takes part in most aspects of community life, studying the history and spirituality of the Congregation, and learning to love to be unknown.
After the three year noviciate, the Community decides if the novice is to be aggregated to the Community. At that point he promises to persevere in the Oratory (Birmingham) for life; this is a promise, not a religious vow.
“Those admitted into the Congregation must be so formed that they learn to love to be unknown (amare nesciri), and that, according to the mind of St. Philip, intent on prayer and imbued with a great desire of divine wisdom, they become capable of communicating divine love and fulfilling it through themselves … They must make progress in contemplating the mystery of salvation, in reading and meditating on the Sacred Scriptures, in taking part in the Church’s liturgy, in leading a life which is dedicated to the service of God and men, and in cultivating both human and Christian virtue.” (from The Constitutions)
Formal studies for the diaconate and priesthood do not start until at least the first year of the noviciate has been satisfactorily completed. The Community then decides whether or not a man is to be advanced as a candidate for the major orders. Full medical and psychological screening are required before such a decision can be taken.
Members of the Birmingham Oratory who by decision of the Community become candidates for the diaconate and the priesthood all pursue their ecclesiastical studies at the local diocesan seminary, in the life of which they take a full and active part.
At the Birmingham Oratory we shun all polemic and unseemly secular controversy; in the parish, in the pulpit, and in our family life together.