By Francesca Norsen Tate
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Brooklyn Oratory of St. Philip Neri, celebrating its 25th Anniversary this Sunday, welcomed the Most Rev. Frank J. Caggiano, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, as guest homilist last Sunday. The official occasion marked Pontifical Foundation of the Brooklyn Oratory.
Oratories have their origin as informal communities of laypeople and priests who prayed together. The saint for whom the Brooklyn Oratory is named was a 16th century Italian layman known for his joy, friendship, humor and devotion to prayer. According to a history published on the Brooklyn Oratory’s website.
St. Philip was in the habit of inviting friends to his one-room apartment for shared prayer, Bible study and singing. These informal gatherings became so popular they had to be moved to successively larger rooms. In time, these quarters began to be described as Oratories, that is, places where prayers were led, the name being derived from the Latin verb orare, to pray.”
The Oratory’s success naturally caused it to evolve into a more organized structure. Saint Philip was ordained a priest at age 36 and then several other promising young followers were ordained. They were formally given a church in Rome called the Chiesa Nuova, or New Church, which still stands near the Piazza Navona.
The priests and lay brothers who came to pray, live and eat together were designated a formal congregation - the Oratory - by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575. Their “work” was to assist the first, primary group of Oratorians, the laity. Thus, an unprecedented parity developed between the priests, brothers and laity, with the clergy’s vocation to serve the laity in their community and environs.
Priests and brothers of the Oratories differ from other religious communities and orders—such as the Jesuits and Franciscans, in that they do not take vows. Their bonds are those of charity and they serve where the need exists.
Oratories can be found the world over: in England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Poland, Mexico, South America, and the United States.
Permanence and stability are vital attributes of an Oratory. While technically the Provost administers the Brooklyn Oratory under the supervision of Rome, the local Bishop is the source of priestly authority, but with its limits. The website explains that a “Bishop’s authority does not extend to assigning or transferring Oratorian priests or brothers. Nor do they move from Oratory to Oratory.”
Then-Bishop Francis Mugavero discerned that the Brooklyn Oratory was seeking a permanent home; and, in 1990, matched the community with a timeworn church in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn, in which he saw great potential. St. Boniface Church had been built by German immigrants during the 1870s. “After years of extensive renewal—both of the charming neo-Gothic church structure and of the parish community— the Oratory Church of Saint Boniface soon became a home for a new generation,” reads the Oratory’s website.