The Original Oblates. From the Life of Saint Benedict as told by St. Gregory the Great, it appears that Oblates were received by St. Benedict already at Subiaco, before he founded his monastery at Monte Cassino. Apparently, however, these were only boys who were offered (the term 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 St. Benedict’s Rule. St. Gregory’s narrative seems to imply that some adults living in the world also put themselves under St. Benedict’s direction and visited his monastery occasionally for spiritual instruction and guidance.
“Confratres.” The term “oblate” as applied to adults does not appear to have been in use before the 11th century. But as early as the ninth century we encountered the term “confratres” which is the name sometimes use for oblates in the English Congregation of Benedictines. We have evidence that many monasteries had such “confratres” before the 11th century. The writing from a monk of that that period tells us:
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 what ever 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 described the relation that still exists in our own day between Oblates and the monastery to which they belong.
Historic Development. Blessed William, abbot of the monastery of Hirschau (+1091) established definite rules for two types of oblates: the Interns or Regular Oblates who lived in the monastery and submitted to its discipline but did not make 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 dusts consecrated themselves to God and to the order of St. Benedict by uniting themselves as Oblates. This took place in such famous monasteries as Cluny, Hirschau, Saint Blaise, and others. St. Henry the second (972-1024), the holy Roman Emperor, showed such great love and veneration for the order that he has been chosen the special male patron of the oblates.
Saint Frances of Rome. In the 15th century, St. 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 in the exercise of charity to the poor. They made no vows, nor did they wear a special religious garb, but they place themselves under the spiritual direction of the Olivetan Benedictines. Some years later they began to live in community life but merely promised obedience to the superior whom they had chosen to rule over them, styling themselves as Oblates of St. Benedict. This original Institute of oblates, founded by St. Francis of Rome, exists in Rome to this day, and these oblates engage in daily common prayer and acts of charity to the poor and the unfortunate. St. Frances of Rome is the female patroness of the oblates of St. Benedict, with her feast day celebrated on March 9.
Official Church Approval. The canonical status of the Oblates was established by a “Brief” of Pope Leo XIII on July 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 St. Benedict, and these Statutes, with a few alterations and additions, were again approved by a Rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Religious on March 24, 1927. The essential elements of these documents continue to be reflected in the contemporary Constitution and Guidelines for the Oblates of St. Benedict.
The Current Picture. The Catholic News Service back in June of 2000 reported that more than 25,000 lay people associate themselves with the various religious communities that admit lay associates such as Benedictine Oblates. “Those figures indicate that the American Catholics seeking to connect with the spirituality, life, mission of religious institutes form a significant and rapidly growing new presence in the U. S. Church.”
The Cloister Walk (1996) by Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris became a New York Times bestseller and did much to publicize the Benedictine way of spirituality and fostered the growth of Benedictine Oblates.