A NEW RELIGIOUS order for men, a Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri called “Newman House,” was founded in October 1996, in Mt. Pocono, Pa., by Father Peter Stravinskas.
Father Stravinskas, who is best known for his work as the editor of The Catholic Answer, said that the community is really an “oratory in formation,” because full canonical establishment will take at least three years. Until that time, the priests and brothers in this community technically serve Bishop James Timlin, of Scranton, Pa., who approved and supported the formation of this oratory within the boundaries of his diocese.
In a recent statement, Bishop Timlin said, “The Diocese of Scranton is always welcoming to men and women who seek to advance the life of the Church through a dedicated life of prayer. We welcome the good works that will surely emanate from this community.”
St. Philip Neri founded the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory in Rome during the 16th century. He saw the oratory as a means for charity, catechesis and evangelization. John Henry Cardinal Newman started a revival of the Oratorian way of life when he brought it to England in the 19th century, at a time when many of the Italian oratories were being suppressed. There are at present about 10 independent oratory communities in the United States.
The oratory approach to religious life is unusual because “it is the only religious congregation in the history of the Church that requires no vows, no promises, no nothing,” said Father Stravinskas.
“St. Philip said that our only bond is charity,” Father Stravinskas explained. “It is a unique approach to communal living. It has all of the pluses of religious life, such as community support and fraternity, but it demands a high level of maturity, because there is no external restraint on you.”
“In many ways, Newman anticipated modernity. He saw the handwriting on the wall,” Father Stravinskas said. “There needs to be some contact between the Church and the world; something between retreating into a world of our own creation, and going out into the world and getting sucked into the spirit of the age. Newman provides the ideal model for that flexible structure.”
Oratory communities are small by design, usually with no more than a dozen or so members. Five men belong to Newman House now, with a sixth joining the community in March. In addition to Father Stravinskas, who is officially the oratory's provost, there is a deacon, two seminarians and two Brothers. Each oratory is financially self-supporting, relying on donations and the shared income of its members
“The strength and weakness of the oratory is that each house is totally autonomous, and sets its own tone,” Father Stravinskas said.
Although oratory members take no vows, the structure of their daily lives resembles that of other religious communities. Every day begins with Mass after which members go off to school or work. At the end of the day, the community gathers to pray parts of the divine office (litugical prayers of the Church; those portions not prayed in common are done privately by each individual), and share a common meal. The members also share the household chores.
“The point of the Oratory is to be the place where everybody lives, not where everybody works,” Father Stravinskas said.
“What we have found initially, that is at the dinner table—some of the fellows have spent the day as students, and some have spent the day as teachers—we have some serious theological discussions. There's that interaction between the academic and the pastoral,” Father Stravinskas said.
That interaction is an important component in the lives of all of the members of Newman House. “One of the greatest problems our priests face today is their sense of being alone,” said Brother Christopher Clay, who has been a member of the Newman House community since it began last October and is finishing his third year of Theology at Seton Hall University. “But that's not the case when your community life is supportive of your understanding of the Church.”
“We haven't come to the oratory by accident of assignment,” Clay said. “But because of the fact that we are of a certain like mind—not that we agree on everything—but we share a common vision and a basic theological and liturgical bottom-line, which is that of the Church.”
Another young member of the Newman House community, Brother Nicholas Gregoris, was ordained a deacon on March 19. He visited several European oratories while studying in Rome, and said that he likes the fact that “individual talent and charism is taken very much into consideration in each oratory.”
“There is a contribution that I can make to this oratory that I might not be able to make in another,” he said. “We take the word “brother” seriously. We always refer to each other as “Brother or “Father,” Deacon Gregoris said. “It is a way to respect the honor and dignity of each person.
“Father Peter has instilled in us a great love for Cardinal Newman and St. Philip Neri, and for the joy of Christian living,” Deacon Gregoris added. “We have a balanced and happy life.”
Newman House welcomes vocational inquiries from men between the ages of 17 and 30. For further information, contact Newman House, 21 Fairview Ave., Mt. Pocono, PA 18344; phone: (717) 839-2185, fax: (717) 839-0405.
Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo