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 our holy Father already at Subiaco, before he founded his monastery at Monte Cassino. Apparently, however, these were only boys who were offered (Oblate means "one who is offered") by their parents to be educated for the monastic life. This "oblation" of boys is described in Chapter 59 of the Holy Rule. Nevertheless, Saint Gregory's narrative seems to warrant the conclusion that some adults living in the world 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 relation 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.
Elena Piscopia, Oblate
Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684) was a brilliant scholar, philosopher, musician and Benedictine Oblate. She became one of the brightest lights of the University of Padua. "Officials in the Roman Catholic Church refused to confer the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman. Elena applied, again, at her father's insistence. This time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead." She is honored as the first woman to earn a doctorate by a stained glass window at Vassar College. She died in 1689 at age 39 and was interred, at her request, among the monks in Padua's Monastery of San Giustina.
Her biography written by Ludovico Francesco Maschietto, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, prima donna laureata nel mondo: 1646-1684 was translated and is slated for publication in June 2007.
The final canonical status of the Oblates was established by a Brief of Pope Leo XIII, dated June 17, 1898. 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.
In the year 2000, the Oblates of Saint John's Abbey celebrated the Diamond Anniversary of their foundation by Abbot Alcuin Deutsch OSB. 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 growth of Benedictine Oblates.