Recent departures from its priestly ranks prompt Jeremy de Satge to question the current vitality of the institution he joined as a postulant The feast of St Philip Neri, founder of the Roman Oratory and patron of all oratories throughout the world, is celebrated each year on May 26.
In England there are two oratories, one in Birmingham founded in 1848 by John Henry Newman, and one in London founded a year later by Fr Wilfred Faber, a friend of the cardinal.
Last year a third oratory was started in Oxford, under the auspices of the Birmingham Fathers, but is not yet an independent foundation.
St Philip Neri was a holy man. Charismatic by nature, he found himself surrounded by a group of disciples who wished to live with him in community.
It was the time of the counterreformation and St Philip, a Florentine living in Rome, wished to return to the spirit of the early church and to concentrate his life on developing a community which prayed together, preached the gospel, and looked after the sick and needy.
He felt that vows might hold men in community against their wishes, and he wanted his community to be united only by love. Certain rules were made, simply for the efficient day to day running of the house and to help his fellow priests and lay brothers to live in charity.
He was a practical man and realised that men who live in community also need a degree of privacy. An Oratorian's room or "nest", as St Philip called it, was the centre of his temporal and spiritual life.
St Philip's exemplary life has inspired others to follow his example, and oratories have been founded throughout the world. There is no hierarchy, however, amongst oratories — St Philip did not wish to found an order.
Each oratory is autonomous and the priests are secular, not religious. They are independent of the diocese in which they are situated, but their presence has to be approved of by the local bishop.
An oratory should always be in a city and should concern itself with the particular needs of the area. Each oratory interprets the teaching of St Philip in its daily life — although each community meets for half an hour of silent prayer once or twice a day. There is no communal recitation of divine office or conventual mass.
After Newman was received into the church, it was suggested that he should found an oratory in England, partly because he had already been living in an Anglican semi-monastic community at Littlemore, and also because he was used to Oxford college life.
An oratory seemed the obvious choice — he could continue his academic work whilst living in community. The oratories of Birmingham and London remain the epitome of a restored English Catholicism — the logical conclusion of the Oxford Movement. To this day, the English Oratory Fathers _ (Oratorians) have included many converts among their number.
Three weeks before the celebration of St Philip's feast this year, two of the London Oratory's 10 priests decided to leave the community and seek to continue their vocations working within the archdiocese of Westminster.
One of them, Fr Richard Price, had been the superior and provost of the community for four years. The other, Fr Thomas McClure, was the Oratory's most recent recruit.
For any priest to decide to leave a community is both unfortunate and sad for that community. "However, what is particularly disturbing in this case is that the total number of priests who have left the London Oratory within the past 10 years is now five.
The same number of novices has come and gone, though this is arguably less unusual. Only two priests, ordained within the last 20 years, have stayed.
A priest's reasons for leaving an order are complex and varied. However, there is one common link between those who have left the London Oratory. They all found the community too stifling and conservative. They also felt that any practical or spiritual innovations they wishes to bring :about were frowned upon. It would be easy to draw the 'conclusion that the community does not wish to develop :spiritually, lacks a positive ,introspection, and that the :fathers find it strangely difficult to accept criticism.
The nature of an oratory is not easy, which makes it all the • more special. Because of the lack of vows and specific rules, which is the strength of the Oratorian ideal, a community has to be especially watchful that it maintains a united spirit and purpose.
The London Oratory comprises men, individually good and kind, who collectively fall prey to all the worst characteristics of Victorian conservatism in their behaviour and attitude.
The "ideals" of the community stagnate and, as a result, spiritual growth is inhibited. The expression "it's not our way" is used as a convenient excuse for reactionary disapproval of any new idea, however small. The particular house rules, to which the priests adhere, disguise a lack of spiritual warmth and charity amongst their number.
Some live almost reclusive lives in their "nests". There is no support mechanism, as there often is in monasteries, for members of the community in distress. The importance placed upon an individual's privacy is deemed greater than essential care and support. There is a complacency of attitude.
The Oratorians form a private community living, as it were, on public show. The London Oratory has many friends who know the priests individually, and it is to be praised that they are able to live their lives in such an open and public way — certainly St Philip would approve.
The community maintains a large church and a high standard of formal liturgy of the new rite which caters well for many people. In an age of modern liturgy the London Oratory is a bolt-hole for many traditionally-minded Catholics.
It is important to ask whether, as a private institution, the London Oratory should be the object of public criticism. So long as the criticism is made for positive reasons, which I hope this article demonstrates, then the answer must be yes.
Though the church and house are privately owned, the priests have a duty firstly to almighty God; secondly, to holy church, in administering her sacraments and preaching truth; thirdly, to Our Lady and St Philip Neri (to whom the church is jointly dedicated); fourthly, to the parishioners and Bishop John Crowley, the area bishop responsible for the parish which the Oratory Fathers are permitted to serve by Westminster archdiocese; and Fifthly, the people who attend the church, many of whom do not live within the parish; and lastly, to themselves. In other words, though it is an independent institution, it has a public accountability.
On a more mercenary note, the Oratory Fathers are launching a new appeal to raise 12.5 million for the fabric of the building — thus further making themselves accountable to the Catholic faithful.
Despite the provision of the sacraments, this is money wasted if the fathers cannot keep their community together. The only real good they will achieve is by example and witness through their own lives. Without a united and loving community radiating its love among the faithful, the Oratory is worthless.
I believe that, without some serious changes in approach and attitude, the London Oratory community will die out within 20 years. 1 think this a tragedy when 1 can see how much more good they should be doing and how important the Oratory has been and should continue to be in English Catholic life.
I would like publicly to ask the fathers individually and collectively: first, to seek positive introspection within their community; secondly, immediately to concentrate their efforts on developing fraternal love within their community; and thirdly, to encourage a common spirituality and greater care for one another, enabling adequate support to be given to those of them who may at times be in need. Is the spirit of St Philip Neri alive in London's South Kensington? 1 am not to judge. I am sure he is there somewhere, but I doubt he is happy at what is going on there are the moment.
Jeremy de Satge lived as a postulant at the London Oratory. Although he has now abandoned his hopes of ordination, he continues to worship at the church and believes in the ideal of the Oratory. We invited the Oratory Fathers at Brompton to reply to some of the questions he raises, but they declined.