A Short History of Oblates

Adapted from The Manual for Oblates of Saint Benedict by Dom Alcuin Deutsch, Abbot of Collegeville

Child Oblates, Adult Disciples

From the life of St Benedict, as told by St 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, St Gregory’s narrative seems to warrant the conclusion that also some adults living in the world put themselves under St Benedict’s direction and visited his monastery occasionally for spiritual instruction and guidance.  We have no evidence that these were Oblates in the present sense of the term; in fact, it is impossible to determine when the Institute of the Oblates began to assume an organic and juridical form.

The ‘Confratres’

The term “oblate” does not appear to have been in use before the 11th century.  But already in the 9th century we meet with the term ‘confratres’, which is the name used into modern times for Oblates in the English Congregation of Benedictines, and we have evidence that many monasteries had such before the 11th century.  Thus we find a monk of the 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.

Oblates, Intern and Extern

A more precise status was given to Oblates by St William, Abbot of Hirschau (†1091).  There were the Interns or Regular Oblates, who lived in a monastery and submitted to its discipline without, however, being united to the community by the bond of vows.

Then there were the Externs or Secular Oblates, who lived in the world, but were affiliated with a monastery; these promised obedience, sometimes also perfect chastity, and made over a part of 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 St Benedict as Oblates to the famous monastery of Cluny, Hirschau, St Blase, and others.

Ss. Henry, Bernard Tolomei, & Frances of Rome

It was during this time that the Benedictine Order enjoyed the highest favour and esteem of none less than the German (Holy Roman) Emperor himself, St Henry II, Duke of Bavaria (†1024), whose great love and veneration for the Order is attested by historians and who has therefore been chosen as the special patron of Oblates.

The Oblate movement received a new impetus in the 14th century when the Brotherhood of Oblates was established by the Congregation of the Olivetans, who were founded by St Bernard Tolomei (†1348).

In the 15th century, St Frances (Francesca) of Rome (†1440) induced a number of noble Roman women to renounce the worldly and extravagant life they were leading for a more perfect Christians life in their homes and the exercise of charity to the poor by means of the wealth they possessed.  They made no vows, nor did they wear a special religious habit, but placed themselves under the spiritual direction of the Olivetan Benedictines.  Not many years later, they began to live a community life and merely promised obedience to the superior whom they had chosen to rule over them, styling themselves Oblates of St Benedict.

This original Institute of Oblates, founded by St Frances, still exists in Rome to this day, and the Oblates engage themselves in daily common prayer and the giving of assistance to the poor and the unfortunate.  It is therefore proper that St Frances of Rome has been made the heavenly patroness of the Oblates of St Benedict.

Death and Rebirth

In subsequent centuries, Oblates were more or less numerous up to the time of the French Revolution, when the Benedictine Order was practically wiped out, as was the case with other religious Orders.  With its reflorescence in the 19th century, however, the Institute of Oblates was also revived.

At the instance of the first Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Dom Hildebrand de Hemptinne (†1913), its final canonical status was established by a brief of Pope Leo XIII, dated June 17, 1898, and by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, dated July 23, 1904, whereby the Statutes and Rules for Secular Oblates of St Benedict were given the official approval of the Holy See.

There are an estimated 25,000 Benedictine oblates in the world today.

Famous Benedictine Oblates throughout History

  • St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury & martyr (†1170)
  • St Thomas More, lawyer, martyr (†1535)
  • St Oliver Plunkett (†1681), Archbishop of Armagh, martyr
  • Elena Cornaro Piscopia (†1684), scholar, philosopher, musician, and first women to receive a doctorate
  • Joris-Karl Huysmans, writer (†1907)
  • Dorothy Day, social activist (†1980)
  • Jacques and Raissa Maritain (†1973/1960), philosophers
  • Walker Percy, Southern American novelist (†1990)
  • Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI