History of the Oblates
of Saint Benedict
The Original Oblates
From the Life of Saint Benedict, as told by Saint Gregory the Great, it appears that Oblates were received by Saint Benedict already at Subiaco, before he founded his monastery at Monte Cassino. Saint Gregory's narrative seems to warrant the conclusion that some adults also put themselves under Saint Benedict's direction and visited his monastery occasionally for spiritual instruction and guidance.
The term "oblate," as applied to adults, does not appear to have been in use before the eleventh century. But as early as the ninth century we meet the term "confratres," which is the name sometimes used for Oblates in the English Congregation of Benedictines, and we have evidence that many monasteries had such "confratres" before the eleventh century. Thus we find a monk of that time writing:
"There are a great many of the faithful, both poor and rich, who request confraternity with us. We give unto all of them participation in whatever good is done in our monastery, be it by prayer or almsgiving. Let us make special prayer for them, both while they live and after their death."
These words well describe the relationship that still exists in our own day between Oblates and the monastery to which they belong.
A more precise status was given to Oblates by Blessed William, Abbot of Hirschau (+1091). He established definite rules for two types of Oblates. The Interns or Regular Oblates lived in the monastery and submitted to its discipline without, however, making formal vows. The Externs or Secular Oblates lived in the world but were affiliated with the monastery. They promised obedience and sometimes perfect chastity, and made over a part or the whole of their possessions to the monastery, either immediately or by way of legacy. Historians tell us that large numbers of the faithful thus consecrated themselves to God and to the Order of Saint Benedict by uniting themselves as Oblates to such famous monasteries as Cluny, Hirschau, Saint Blase, and others. The Holy Roman Emperor, Saint Henry II (972-1024), showed such great love and veneration for the Order that he has been chosen the special patron of the Oblates. His wife, Cunegond, was canonized in 1200.
Saint Frances of Rome
In the fifteenth century, Saint Frances of Rome (1384-1440) induced a number of noble Roman women to renounce their worldly and extravagant life for a more perfect Christian life in their homes and the exercise of charity to the poor. They made no vows, nor did they wear a special religious habit, but placed themselves under the spiritual direction of the Olivetan Benedictines. Some years later they began to live a community life but merely promised obedience to the superior whom they had chosen to rule over them, styling themselves Oblates of Saint Benedict. This original Institute of Oblates, founded by Saint Frances, exists in Rome to this day, and the Oblates engage in daily common prayer and acts of charity to the poor and the unfortunate. It is therefore proper that Saint Frances of Rome has been made the heavenly patroness of the Oblates of Saint Benedict. Her feast is celebrated on March 9.
In 1898, Pope Leo XIII granted canonical status to the Oblates. On July 23, 1904, the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued a decree officially approving the Statutes and Rules of the Secular Oblates of Saint Benedict, and these Statutes, with a few slight alterations and additions, were again approved by a Rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Religious on March 24, 1927.
Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, received the first sixty Oblates at Saint John's on the Feast of Saint Benedict, 21 March 1925. The movement was fostered in the missions, schools and parishes attached to the abbey. A strong spiritual bond was in this way created between the Oblates and Saint John's Abbey and its activities, while an understanding and devotion to Saint Benedict's way of life was given a fresh impetus.
In the year 2000, the Oblates of Saint John's Abbey celebrated the Diamond Anniversary of their foundation. There are now more than 25,000 lay associates of U.S. Catholic religious orders. "Those figures indicated that the American Catholics seeking to connect with the spirituality, life, prayer and mission of religious institutes form a significant and rapidly growing new presence in the U.S. church" and elsewhere (Catholic News Service, 1 June 2000). The Cloister Walk (1996) by Oblate Kathleen Norris, became a New York Times bestseller that did much to publicize the Benedictine way of spirituality and fostered the renewed growth of Benedictine Oblates.