Four hundred years ago, on 24 February 1612, with the Brief Christifidelium Quorumlibet Pope Paul V approved the Constitutions of the Congregation of The Oratory. The Oratory was the first, in chronological order, of those institutions which the Code of Canon Law in force today calls “Societies of Apostolic Life”. There are currently 34 such in existence, counting only those of pontifical right.
Gregory XIII canonically recognized it in 1575, the first Holy Year celebrated after the conclusion of the Council of Trent, but it had in fact existed since 1564, when the first followers of St Philip Neri, who had trained in The Oratory, were ordained priests and sent by Neri to San Giovanni dei Fiorentini: indeed in that year the Florentine community in the City had chosen to entrust their parish to Fr Philip.
Ordained on 23 May 1551 and the founder of the movement which took the name “Oratory”, he accepted unwillingly, out of obedience to authoritative instructions. However, he who in the residential college of priests at San Girolamo, who received stipends from the Confraternity of Charity to care for the church, had not felt that the parish apostolate was consonant with his spirit and the special vocation that motivated him, and had even given up his stipend in order to serve with total dedication but with the freedom to decide on his own forms of apostolate.
A few years later, in the middle of the Jubilee Year of 1575, Gregory XIII's Bull Copiosus in Misericordia assigned to “Philip Neri, a Florentine priest and the superior of several priests and seminarians”, the parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, at the same time setting up “a secular Congregation of Priests and Seminarians called “The Oratory”, with the mandate to “formulate honest Statutes and Regulations that do not contradict the sacred canons and the provisions of the Council of Trent”.
The compilation of the Constitutions was slow and was not an easy undertaking. The drafting of the Constitutional text began at the end of 1583; the Compendium Constitutionum Congregationis Oratorii which constituted the base for that larger and more organic edition of 1588, guaranteed, not only by the approval of the whole Congregation, by the authority of Fr Philip who, for the 1583 text had limited himself to a few instructions. The centralized structure of the Oratorian Houses which had come into being in the meantime corresponded with the intentions of Talpa, Tarugi, Bordini, Baronio and others, rather than with the inmost conviction of the Father; but he accepted the idea of his sons. With the prevalence, especially after the death of Fr Philip, of the line of fidelity to the founder's original intention, this juridical link of the houses was to disappear. The 1612 Constitutions were to be formulated with the clear intention, expressed by Fr Consolini, to include only “what had been bequeathed by him [Philip Neri] and which he had observed for so many years in his lifetime”.
The “path” the founder had marked out was already expressed in summary form in the preface to these Constitutions: “The holy Father Philip”, they read, “would direct with paternal inspiration the spirit and will of each one of his sons, in accordance with the temperament of each, considering himself satisfied to see them fired by piety and fervent in the love of Christ. Only gradually and with gentle tact (opedetemptim et suaviter) did he continue to test and to ascertain as a manifestation of the Lord's will what, by daily experience, was congenial and useful to them, day after day, in the achievement of holiness. And he would say persuasively that this kind of life really was especially suited to secular priests and lay people, and was in conformity with the divine will”.
It was a community of priests, therefore, totally dedicated to Christ in the exercise of their ministry, a family life based on attention and respect for the individual, whose specific temperament is a value to strengthen in goodness and in the light of the Spirit, to form in a responsible attitude of authentic freedom which not only is not opposed to the common progress, but also becomes a wealth within the community; an orderly family of priests, not bound by religious vows but living the spirit of vows in a secularism that we may describe as a mental disposition to perceiving the restlessness of men and women, being in the world to proclaim the Gospel without extraneousness or mortifying forms of paternalism.