French Congregation of the Oratory
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Founded in Paris at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, who, in Bossuet's words, "made glisten in the Church of France the purest and most sublime lights of the Christian priesthood and the ecclesiastical life". It was precisely to work more effectively towards the rehabilitation of the ecclesiastical life that Cardinal de Bérulle founded (in 1611) the new congregation, which he named after that of St. Philip Neri, adopting also in part the rules and constitutions of the latter. To meet the special needs of the Church in France at the period, however, and because of the tendency toward centralization which "especially from this period forms one of the dominant characteristics of the French national spirit" (Perraud), he made one very important modification; whereas in the Italian congregation the houses were independent of one another, de Bérulle placed the government of all the houses in the hands of the superior-general. On 10 May, 1613, Paul III issued a Bull approving the new institute, which now made great progress. During the lifetime of its founder, more than fifty houses were either established or united to the Oratory, subsequently there were more than twice this number divided into four provinces. As St. Philip had wished, so also the French Oratory was solely for priests ; the members were bound by no vows except those of the priesthood, and had for sole aim the perfect fulfillment of their priestly functions. The Congregation of the Oratory is not a teaching order; Oratorians have directed many colleges, notably de Juilly; but neither this nor instruction in seminaries was ever the sole object of the congregation, though it was the first to organize seminaries in France according to the ordinances of the Council of Trent. The congregations of M. Bourdoise, St. Nicolas du Chardonnet, Saint-Sulpice and Saint-Lazare were all inspired by the idea of Cardinal de Bérulle. The definite aim and characteristic of the French Oratory is in the words of Cardinal Perraud "the pursuit of sacerdotal perfection". The supreme authority of the congregation is vested in the superior-general (elected for life) and in the general assemblies convoked regularly every three years -- or extraordinarily immediately on the resignation or death of a general. These assemblies are composed of members who have been seven years in the congregation and three in the priesthood ; the number of members is one out of every twelve Oratorians thus qualified, and they are elected by all Oratorian priests three years in the congregation. The general assemblies appoint all the officers -- a superior general (if necessary ), his three assistants, the visitors, the procurator general, and the secretary general. They also examine and decide upon all questions of any importance concerning the congregation in general; the general and his assistants, in the interval between the Assemblies, exercise only ordinary administration. The founder, who died at the altar in 1629, was succeeded by Father Charles de Condren, who, like Father de Bérulle, was imbued with the spirit of the Oratorians from his youth. Even during his life, Saint Jeanne de Chantal wrote of him that "it would seem that Father de Condren was capable of teaching the angels "; St. Vincent de Paul's was wont to say that "there had never been a man like him". Father de Condren governed the Oratory most wisely, completing its organization according to the intentions of its founder. Among his works must be specially remembered the part he played in the institution of Saint-Sulpice, whose founder, the saintly and celebrated Olier, was under his direction. He died in 1641; his remains, recovered by the present writer in 1884, are now preserved in the choir of the chapel of the college of Juilly. The succeeding generals were:
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- Bourgoing (1641-62);
- François Senault (1662-72), a celebrated preacher;
- Abel-Louis de Saint-Marthe, who resigned in 1696, only to die the following year. During his generalship the congregation was greatly disturbed by the troubles of Jansenism.
- There was the same disturbance under his successor, Father Pierre d'Arérez de la Tour (1696-1733), who began by appealing against the Bull "Unigenitus", with the Archbishop of Paris and a large part of the French clergy. Later however, having a better knowledge of the facts he revoked his appeal, and also obtained the submission of Cardinal de Noailles -- which shows that his difficulty was not a doctrinal one, but arose rather from considerations of discipline and opportuneness. Many Oratorians have been calumniated on this point by prejudiced or ignorant historians. Father d'Arérez de la Tour was one of the most esteemed spiritual directors of his time.
- The seventh general was Father Thomas de la Valette (1733-72);
- the eighth, Father Louis de MuIy (1773-9),
- the ninth, Father Sauvé Moisset (1779-90).
On the death of this last, at the height of the French Revolution, the congregation was unable to meet in a general assembly to elect a successor, and was soon engulfed in the revolutionary storm, which overwhelmed the Church in France ; but, in dying, the Oratory again attested to its faithful attachment to the Chair of Peter. If some of the Oratorians at this time supported Constitutionalism, the great majority remained faithful to the Catholic Faith, and a certain number among them paid for their fidelity by their lives.
It was only in 1852 that the French Congregation of the Oratory was restored by Father Gratry and Father Pététot, the latter, who was earlier pastor of Saint-Roch de Paris, becoming first superior-general of the revived institute. In 1884 he resigned and was repIaced by Father (later Cardinal ) Perraud. Father Pététot died in 1887. Father Perraud's successor, Father Marius Nouvelle, took charge of the congregation, which, greatly weakened by the persecution which reigns in France, numbers only a few members residing for the most part in Paris.
The French Oratory at various stages in its history has given a large number of distinguished subjects to the Church ; preachers like Lejeune, Massillon, and Mascaron; philosophers like Malebranche ; theologians like Thomassin, Morin ; exegetes like Houbigant, Richard Simon, Duguet. One must note, however, that the last two were forced to leave the congregation where they had been trained -- the former on account of the rashness of his exegesis, the latter in consequence of his Jansenistic tendencies.
Naturally, the Oratory of France exerted little direct influence in foreign countries. except through its houses, St. Louis-des-Français in Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon. In connexion with England, Father de Bérulle's mission with twelve of his confreres at the court of Henrietta of France (1625), wife of the unfortunate Charles I, must be remembered. Among the Oratorians were Father Harlay de Sancy, Father de Balfour, the latter of an old English family, and Father Robert Philips, a Scotchman and theologian of great merit, who entered the Oratory in 1617 after having been tortured for the Faith in his own country. When Protestant intolerance forced the other Oratorians to leave England, Father Philips remained as confessor to the queen, and in 1644 returned with her to France, where he died in 1647. Later other English ecclesiastics joined the Oratory. Among the best known are: Father William Chalmers of Aberdeen (d. about 1660), who entered the Oratory in 1627, author of "Disputationes philosophicae" (1630) and an edition of various patristic works (1634). After leaving the Oratory in 1637, he published several other works, including "A Brief History of the Church in Scotland" (1643). Father John Whyte, of Loughill in Ireland, entered the Oratory in 1647 and died a member in 1678. He was also a noted theologian and published "Theoremata ex universa theologia" (1670). A still more distinguished member of this period was Father Stephen Gough of Sussex. At first chaplain to the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and doctor and Oxford, he was converted to Catholicism by the Oratorians of the court of Henrietta of France, whom we mentioned above, and in 1652 entered the Oratory of Paris, at the age of twenty-seven. The general of the Oratory, Father Bourgoing, stationed him at Notre-Dame-des-Vertus, near Paris, at the head of a seminary for English Catholic priests which he had founded, and for which the English clergy thanked the Oratory in a beautiful letter of congratulation. From 1661 Father Gough lived in Paris as almoner of the Queen of England. He died of apoplexy in 1682, without publishing the commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul with immediate reference to the Protestant controversy, which he had been preparing for many years. In contrast to this illustrious convert is Father Levassor of Orléans, who entered the Oratory in 1667. A man of ability, but, according to Batterel, "too fond of sport and good cheer", he ended by leaving the Oratory and apostatizing, and died in England in 1718, a canon in the Established Church.
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