Quoted, in part, from What is the Oratory? by F. Raleigh Addington:
We are frequently asked, “to what Order do you belong?” and the answer quite simply is that we are not a religious order at all, but secular priests living in a community under a rule. But then people may ask, “how long have you been here,” and they are surprised if one says twenty or thirty years, because they assume that all secular priests are moved about from time to time by the bishop. Oratorians are not like that either. A man enters a Congregation of the Oratory with the intention of staying and working in the same place all his life.
There are two cardinal principles of The Oratory, and the first is that we are attached to our Congregation only by the bond of love and common purpose and not by vow, oath or promise, so any Oratorian is free to leave his Congregation to join a religious order or become a priest working for a diocese. But once admitted to it after a probation of three years he cannot be taken from it or dismissed from it except for some grave offense. The second principle is that each house of The Oratory is self-governing and independent of all others. A man belongs to The Pittsburgh Oratory or The Metuchen Oratory (there are seven in the United States), to The Birmingham Oratory, or The Roman Oratory. If an Oratory has a parish or a diocesan ministry – and not all do – it is subject to the local bishop in parochial matters, but in respect of its internal regime, each Oratory is directly subject to the Holy See, and there is known as “Pontifical”.
Lastly, it may be asked: if Oratorians are secular priests, why does a man enter a Congregation of the Oratory? How is it a special vocation? In the first place it must be because he is attracted by the person of St. Philip Neri, and wants to work for the good of souls in his spirit. It will also be because he feels the need, or at least appreciates the value of community life for pastoral and apostolic work. He will find in The Oratory more opportunity for prayer, reading and writing than the circumstances of the average priest in a city will afford, and because he likes to “stay put”, being prepared to exercise the priestly ministry in a restricted sphere without limelight.
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