Oratorians Celebrate 400 Years

Spiritual “Cousins” of the Sulpicians in the French School
Sunday 20 November 2011
by  Ronald Witherup
popularity : 8%

The Sulpicians are a prominent member of what has become known as “the French School of Spirituality,” even though the term can be misleading in the sense that there was no formal or uniform “school” of thought which undergirds this large and influential spiritual movement of renewal in the seventeenth century. Yet the French School is indeed the spiritual heritage of the Society of Saint Sulpice, which is shared with other priestly and religious communities that trace their roots to this same phenomenon and who have taken to calling themselves “spiritual cousins.” In addition to the (French) Oratorians, this group includes the Vincentians (Lazaristes), the Eudists, the Foreign Missionaries of Paris (MEP), and the Sulpicians, among others. We are of the same spiritual family, with intertwining histories, even though we have maintained distinct identities and ministries.

Panel of Experts for Colloquium on the Oratorians

On 11 November 2011, the senior “cousin” of the French School, the Oratorians, commemorated the 400th anniversary of their foundation with a year-long series of spiritual and cultural events at various locations in France. Founded on 11 November 1611 by Father Pierre DE BÉRULLE (1575-1629), later a cardinal and considered the “founder” of the so-called French School, the Oratorians were modeled after the group of the same name founded in Italy by Saint Philip NERI in the sixteenth century. Another form of Philip Neri’s Oratory was also founded in England in the nineteenth century (1848) by the celebrated Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90).


Interior of Church of Saint Eustache

As with the Sulpicians, the French Oratory was part of the movement for renewal in Catholic Church in the time of the Counter-Reformation. De Bérulle initially gathered five priests around him in a hôtel particulier on Faubourg Saint-Jacques in Paris to foster “priestly perfection,” and thus help create in the Church a fountain of spiritual renewal. Known for his personal piety, Bérulle downplayed overly abstract mysticism and emphasized incarnational theology, the mystery of the Trinity, and a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was sometimes known as “the apostle of the incarnate Word,” and he shared with Sulpician founder Jean-Jacques OLIER a love for the scriptures, an intense devotion to the Eucharist, and a strong desire to renew the priesthood.


Remnants of Cardinal de Bérulle’s Vestments, Sulpician Archives

As with other Catholic religious communities in French, the Oratory experienced some difficult moments in its history. In the wake of the French Revolution, the Oratory was dissolved in 1792 and was not refounded in France until 1852. Then in 1903 the Oratory was suppressed after the promulgation of the Law of 1901. Some Oratorians fled to Switzerland, regrouped, and returned to France in 1920. They revised their Constitutions in 1969 to reflect post-Vatican II developments, and in 1991, these were approved by the Holy See. Today the (French) Oratorians number forty-one members, most of whom continue to teach in schools located in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and Pontoise.

The heart of the anniversary celebrations in Paris focused on the weekend of 11-13 November 2011. Among the events were an Oratorio, sung by the celebrated choir of the Oratorian Parish of Saint Eustache, and a day-long colloquium and round table on the Oratory’s history and contribution to the Church’s evangelical mission. A festive Eucharist, presided by Cardinal André VINGT-TROIS, Archbishop of Paris, was celebrated at the Church of Saint Eustache on Sunday, 13 November.


Fr. James CUNNINGHAM, introducing the Colloquium

The current Superior General of the Oratorians, Father James CUNNINGHAM, an American who has spent more than 35 years in ministry in France, led the organization of the extensive anniversary celebrations. At his invitation, the Sulpician Superior General, Ronald D. WITHERUP, pss participated in the weekend of festivities in Paris and served as a member of the honorary planning committee. The Provincial of the French Province, Bernard PITAUD, pss also attended the events, along with other Sulpicians.

In addition to ongoing contact between the Sulpicians and the Oratorians, several Sulpicians have made serious studies of the writings of Cardinal de Bérulle. Most significantly, the late Sulpician Father Michel DUPUY, pss (1924-2011), a noted expert on the founder of the French School, edited eleven volumes of the collected works of de Bérulle, with the assistance of Blandine DELAHAYE. (See Pierre de Bérulle: Œuvres Complètes [Paris: Cerf, 1995-2011]), the most recent of which appeared just days before the anniversary began. The final two volumes will be published posthumously in the near future.

The Society of Saint Sulpice sincerely congratulates our spiritual “cousins” on this milestone in their history. With God’s grace, we pray that their ministry can continue to impact the lives of those whom they serve in promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Elegantly Carved Crucifix at St. Eustache