When I was studying history as a young man, I heard of a remarkable movement called the Oratory of Divine Love, which had been founded early in the 16th century by a laywoman from northern Italy, whom we now call St. Catherine of Genoa.
She was something of a Mother Teresa figure and, in fact, directed the largest hospital in the world for poor people.
It was a time of confusion, chaos and scandal. During Catherine's early years, the Church had been governed by the most scandalous of popes, Alexander VI. There was a great deal of abuse and scandal in the Church. There was the constant selling of offices and positions, like those of bishop and parish priest.
There was also an immense amount of theological confusion and ignorance. A large number of devout clergy, religious and laity, however, were spread throughout Europe. No one knew that the Catholic Church was about to explode in the Protestant Reformation and that the unity of the Church in western Europe would soon be destroyed.
This woman and her friends hit on a very simple means of preserving their faith and doing good: They founded the first prayer group known by that name in Church history. The English word oratory comes from the Latin oratorio, which means prayer group. Catherine and her friends started the movement of prayer groups that did precisely that. They prayed together and studied the Scriptures as the guide to their personal spiritual life.
Members of the oratory also took upon themselves the obligation of effectively doings works of charity for the poor and works of religion for the Church. The latter included things like assisting in the parish, teaching religious education, and assisting the sick and the dying.
Italy at that time was a totally Catholic society, but not a very Christian one. By means of a life of common prayer, members of the oratory tried to change their society. It seemed like a modest goal. However, the Oratory of Divine Love spread throughout Italy and southern Europe and had an immense effect. Many historians think that France, and especially Italy and southern Switzerland, kept the Catholic faith because of the oratory. From its ranks came a new religious community, the Oratorian Fathers, founded by St. Philip Neri.
Several years ago I was haunted by the memory of the oratory and its devout foundress who changed her world without ever leaving her home city of Genoa. I have been deeply affected by the writings of St. Catherine, which I published in conjunction with professor Serge Hughes (Paulist Press’ Classics of Western Spirituality series). Her most important and simple message was that all reform must begin in the individual's heart.
In recent years, with the help of Jerry and Yolanda Cleffi, former ministers of the Assemblies of God, and several other devout people, we have been able to start a number of oratories throughout the United States and some other countries. This year we had our first retreat and weekend of prayer at the Sisters of Life retreat house in Stamford, Conn.
It has been a slow start because of my incapacity after having been struck by a car. Nevertheless, I could see that the laypeople who joined the oratory genuinely profited by the weekly meeting, which includes prayer, Scripture reading and meditation on some point of Catholic doctrine. An outline of each week's meeting appears on the group's website (oratorydl.org).
All around us are signs that the Church desperately needs reform. If we do not see this, we are not looking at what is going on. Reform means personal change and bringing institutions back to their rightful purpose. Catholic education, Catholic social services, Catholic medical services — all need reform. Pope John Paul II and our present Holy Father have clearly called for reform of the clergy and religious life.
The secular newspapers do not know what to call all this. They break it down into political categories of liberal and conservative, which only confuses the issues. The question is: Do we want to follow the Gospel? Do we want to know the teaching of the Church?
If you are interested in joining or starting an oratory, please see our website. The answers are all there. Get an oratory going, and you will see that people will change. They will move from discouragement to encouragement, from an almost angry despair about the Church's troubles to a positive enthusiasm, which comes from the recognition that there is a way out.
St. Catherine of Genoa never let anyone forget that the work of the oratory was completely the work of the Holy Spirit, and that its goal was without deviation to follow Christ in the midst of the world. Maybe this is what you are being called to right now.
Franciscan Father Benedict J. Groeschel is director of the Office for Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York. His latest book is Praying to Our Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries, from Ignatius Press.