Oratoire (Congrégation de l’)

Samy Ben Messaoud

1The French Oratoire was founded by Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629), on 11 November 1611. In his bull of approval, Sacrosanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ (10 May 1613), Paul V added new obligations to the institutional charter of the Oratoire: the instruction of youth and the direction of colleges. Not wishing to compete with the Society of Jesus, Bérulle, a former student of the Jesuits, had excluded lay education from the attributions of his congregation, justified fears since the rivalry between these two teaching orders was permanent and lively. While Bérulle’s disciples had excelled in pedagogical practice, the principle objective of the “Oratoire of Jesus and immaculate Mary” consisted on rehabilitating the state of the priesthood and the restoration of the Catholic vocation.

2The Oratoire de France, a society of secular priests, took inspiration from the spiritual doctrine of the Oratorians of Rome, founded by Philip Neri (1515?-1595) in 1575. Recruited among the provincial bourgeois elites or the robe nobility, the Oratorian priest did not pronounce solemn vows at the end of his noviciate. “Let him who can enter, let him who wishes leave”, such is the motto of the Oratoire; its authority is applied gently and respect without the help of fear. The priests, devoted to preaching and teaching, worked in an environment imbued with friendship and mutual confidence. Devotion, humility, and disinterest were the principal moral values of this order. The Oratorian, like Jesus, the first teacher, was a man of continual prayer. The sanctification of the clergy and sacerdotal perfection thus represent the foundations of the Oratoire’s spiritual doctrine.

3The constitutions of the Oratoire, written up by Charles de Condren (†1641) and François Bourgoing (†1662), disciples of Bérulle, impose on priests only the rules of the Apostolic Church. Directed by a superior general elected by the priests at the annual assembly of the congretation, the Oratoire de France differs in its mode of interior organization from the Oratory of Rome, in which each house is perfectly autonomous. During Montesquieu’s school days at the college at Juilly (1700-1705), the Oratoire counted 581 priests for 85 houses; Pierre François de La Tour (†1733) was then the superieur general of the congregation. His generalship, begun in 1696, was the theater of internal dissensions, due to the Jansenisms and the bull Unigenitus (8 September 1713) condemning the Réflexions morales of Quesnel, an Oratorian priest.

4From its founding, the Oratoire de France had occupied a preponderant place in the Republic of Letters. The Augustinian Cardinal de Bérulle, a friend of Descartes, close to St. Cyran, director of the nuns at Port-Royal, was, with Vincent de Paul and François de Sales, one of the most influencial masters of the French school of spirituality. Philosophy (Malebranche, Catalogue, no. [‣]), rhetoric (Bernard Lamy, Catalogue, no. [‣]), biblical exegesis (Richard Simon, Catalogue, no. [‣]), history (Jacques Le Long, Catalogue, no. [‣]), theology (Louis Thomassin, Catalogue, no. [‣]) – the Oratorians were illustrated in all branches of learning. These authors were not only known and appreciated by Montesquieu, but also shelves in his library. During his stays in Paris, Montesquieu frequented the Oratoire library: Father Desmolets (†1760), the librarian, was most helpful to him (Corr. I, no. 5, 102, 280). Besides the search for books, Desmolets, a correspondent and friend of Montesquieu, was, as the Spicilège attests, a privileged interlocutor, for it was he who supplied him with the anonymous “collection” that constituted the initial core of the precious collection of notes (nos. 1-203: see Spicilège, OC, t. XIII, Introduction). It was also he who lent a hand to the publication of The Temple of Gnidus, the licentious character of which clashed with the Jansenist tendencies of the ecclesiastic (OC, t. XVIII, letter 118).


Adolphe Perraud, L’Oratoire de France au XVIIe et au XIXe siècle, Paris, 1865 (Bulle d’institution de la Congrégation de l’Oratoire, p. 501-504).

Alfred Franklin, Les Anciennes Bibliothèques de Paris, Paris, 1870 (Bibl. de l’Oratoire, t. II, p. 337-349).

Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, [1921] new ed., François Trémolières dir., Grenoble, 2006, vol. I, t. III.

Michel Leherpeur, L’Oratoire de France, Paris, 1926.

André George, L’Oratoire, Paris, 1928.

L’Oratoire de France, Monsoult, 1950.

J. Hillairet, Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris, Paris, 1963 (L’Oratoire, 145 rue Saint-Honoré).

René Boureau, L’Oratoire en France, Paris, 1991.

Anne Ferrari, Figures de la contemplation. La rhétorique divine de Pierre de Bérulle, Paris, 1997.

Agnès Gerhards, Dictionnaire historique des ordres religieux, Paris, 1998.

Y. Krumenacher, L’École française de spiritualité, Paris, 1998.

Le Patrimoine de l’Éducation nationale, Danièle Alexandre-Bidon dir., Charenton-le-Pont, 1999 (P. de La Tour, sculpted bust, p. 252).

Chroniques de Port-Royal 30 (2001).

Bibliographical reference

Ben Messaoud Samy , « Oratoire (Congrégation de l’) », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : https://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/dem-1377612425-en/en