Oratory (Lat. oratorium, from orare, to pray), as a general term, signifies a place of prayer, but technically it means a structure other than a parish church, set aside by ecclesiastical authority for prayer and the celebration of Mass. Oratories seem to have originated from the chapels erected over the tombs of the early martyrs where the faithful resorted to pray, and also from the necessity of having a place of worship for the people in country districts when churches proper were restricted to cathedral cities. We also find early mention of private oratories for the celebration of Mass by bishops, and later of oratories attached to convents and to the residences of nobles. In the Eastern Church, where the parochial organization is neither so complete nor so rigid as in the West, private oratories were so numerous as to constitute an abuse. In the Latin Church oratories are classed as (I) public, (2) semipublic, and (3) private.
(I) PUBLIC ORATORIES are canonically erected by the bishop and are perpetually dedicated to the Divine service. They must have an entrance and exit from the public road. Priests who celebrate Mass in public oratories must conform to the office proper to those oratories, whether secular or regular. If, however, the calendar of an oratory permits a votive Mass to be said, the visiting priest may celebrate in conformity with his own diocesan or regular calendar.
(2) SEMIPUBLIC ORATORIES are those which, though erected in a private building, are destined for the use of a community. Such are the oratories of seminaries, pious congregations, colleges, hospitals, prisons, and such institutions. If, however, there be several oratories in one house, it is only the one in which the Blessed Sacrament is preserved that has the privileges of a semipublic oratory. All semipublic oratories (which class technically includes the private chapel of a bishop) are on the same footing as public oratories in regard to the celebration of Mass. The calendar of feasts to be observed in them (unless they belong to a regular order having its proper calendar) is that of the diocese. In oratories belonging to nuns, the feasts of their community are to be celebrated in accordance with the decrees or indults they have received from the Holy See. Regulars visiting a semipublic oratory cannot celebrate the feasts of saints of their own order unless the calendar proper to the oratory prescribes the same or permits of a votive Mass. Public and semipublic oratories are ordinarily under the control of the bishop. The Congregation of Rites declared (January 23, 1899): “In these (oratories), as, by the authority of the ordinary, the holy sacrifice of the Mass can be offered, so also all those present thereat can satisfy thereby the precept which obliges the faithful to hear Mass on prescribed days.” The same decree also gives an authoritative definition of the three species of oratories.
(3) PRIVATE ORATORIES are those erected in private houses for the convenience of some person or family by an indult of the Holy See. They can be erected only by permission of the pope. Oratories in private houses date from Apostolic times when the Sacred Mysteries could not be publicly celebrated owing to the persecutions. Even after the peace of Constantine, the custom continued to prevail. Kings and nobles especially had such oratories erected in their palaces. As early as the reign of Emperor Justinian, we find regulations concerning private oratories as distinguished from public churches, and prohibitions against saying Mass in private houses (Novel., lviii and cxxxi). Permissions to celebrate were granted, however, freely in the West by popes and councils. The latest decree regulating private oratories is that of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments of February 7, 1909. According to this, private oratories are conceded by the Holy See only on account of bodily infirmity, or difficulty of access to a public church or as a reward for services done to the Holy See or to the Catholic cause. The grant of a private oratory may be temporary or for the life of the grantee, according to the nature of the cause that is adduced. In either case, the simple concession of an oratory implies that only one Mass a day may be celebrated, that the precept of the Church concerning the hearing of Mass on prescribed days (certain special festivals generally specified in the indult excluded) may be there satisfied only by the grantees, and that the determination of the place, city, and diocese where the oratory is to be erected is approved. The rescript will be forwarded to the ordinary. The decree then recites the various extensions of the beforementioned privileges that may be conceded to grantees:
(a) As to the satisfaction of the precept of hearing Mass: This is usually conceded by the indult only to the following: relatives of the grantee living under the same roof, dependants of the family, and guests or those who share his table. The others living in the house may not satisfy the precept except it be a funeral Mass or on account of the distance of the public church. If the oratory be a rural one, those employed on the estate may there hear Mass, but in that case the grantee must provide for a catechetical instruction and an explanation of the Gospel. The same holds for a private oratory in a camp or castle or a widespread domain. In very peculiar circumstances (to be judged by the ordinary) all others may also hear Mass in a private oratory while the conditions prevail.
(b) As to hearing Mass in the absence of the grantees: This is allowed in the presence of one of the relatives living under the same roof, but the concession is to be understood of a temporary absence of the grantees and that the relative be expressly determined. The same is extended to the principal one among the familiars, rural servants, or dependants.
(c) As to the number of Masses: If the grantees are two priests who are brothers, both may celebrate Mass. A thanksgiving Mass is also allowed if the ordinary recommends it. Priests who are guests may say Mass in the oratory of the house where they are staying if they have commendatory letters from the ordinary, provided they are infirm or the church is distant. Several Masses may also be said during the last agony or at the death or anniversary of one of the grantees and likewise on the feast of his patron saint.
(d) As to greater festivals: By an extension of privileges, Mass may be allowed in private oratories on all days except on the feast of the local patron, the Assumption, Christmas, and Easter. Sometimes the concession may extend to the first three feasts, but very rarely to Easter, and then only on the urgent recommendation of the ordinary, exception being made for grantees who are infirm priests.
(e) As to concessions: Sometimes a grantee may have the rights of a private oratory in two dioceses, but then both ordinaries must give testimonial letters. In case the oratory is situated in a place where the parish priest has to say two Masses on the same day, a priest from some other place may say Mass in the oratory but he may not say another Mass in addition. An oratory near a sick-room is also allowed occasionally during sickness. This decree likewise allows ordinaries (for ten cases only) to grant a private oratory to poor priests who are aged and infirm. It will be noted that this legislation is a very liberal extension of the provisions formerly governing private oratories.
WILLIAM H. W. FANNING