Origins and history
The word oblate (from the Latin oblatus - someone who has been offered) has had various particular uses at different periods in the history of the Christian church.
The children vowed and given by their parents to the monastic life, in houses under the Rule of St. Benedict, were commonly known by this term during the century and a half after its writing, when the custom was in vogue, and the councils of the Church treated them as monks. This practice continued until the Tenth Council of Toledo in 656 forbade their acceptance before the age of ten and granted them free permission to leave the monastery, if they wished, when they reached the age of puberty. The term puer oblatus (used after that Council) labels an oblate who had not yet reached puberty and thus had a future opportunity to leave the monastery, though puer oblatus can also refer to someone entering an abbey. At a later date the term "oblate" designated such lay men or women as were pensioned off by royal and other patrons upon monasteries or benefices, where they lived as in an almshouse or homes.
In the 11th century, Abbot William of Hirschau or Hirsau (died 1091), in the old diocese of Spires, introduced two kinds of lay brethren into the monastery:
- the fratres barbati or conversi, who took vows but were not claustral or enclosed monks
- the oblati, workmen or servants who voluntarily subjected themselves, while in the service of the monastery, to religious obedience and observance.
Afterwards, the different status of the lay brother in the several orders of monks, and the ever-varying regulations concerning him introduced by the many reforms, destroyed the distinction between the conversus and the oblatus.
The Cassinese Benedictines, for instance, at first carefully differentiated between conversi, commissi and oblati; the nature of the vows and the forms of the habits were in each case specifically distinct. The conversus, the lay brother properly so called, made solemn vows like the choir monks, and wore the scapular; the commissus made simple vows, and was dressed like a monk, but without the scapular; the oblatus made a vow of obedience to the abbot, gave himself and his goods to the monastery, and wore a sober secular dress.
But in 1625, we find the conversus reduced below the status of the commissus, inasmuch as he could make only simple vows for a year at a time; he was in fact indistinguishable, except by his dress, from the oblatus of a former century. Then, in the later Middle Ages, oblatus, confrater, and donatus became interchangeable titles, given to any one who, for his generosity or special service to the monastery, received the privilege of lay membership, with a share in the prayers and good works of the brethren.
Canonically, only two distinctions ever had any consequence:
- that between those who entered religion "per modum professionis" and "per modum simplicis conversionis" the former being monachi and the later oblati
- that between the oblate who was "mortuus mundo" ("dead to the world," that is, who had given himself and his goods to religion without reservation), and the oblate who retained some control over his person and his possessions – the former only (plene oblatus) was accounted a persona ecclesiastica, with enjoyment of ecclesiastical privileges and immunity (Benedict XIV, "De Synodo Dioce.", VI).