The splendid church of the Sacred Heart in Bournemouth.
So what is going on with the Oratorians of St Philip Neri in this country? Having remained at two houses in Birmingham and London since the nineteenth century, Newman’s desire for a House in Oxford finally came to fruition in 1990. Since then, a community in formation has long been doing splendid work in Manchester and just recently another in York, where I had the joy of offering High Mass just recently. Now two more Oratorian communities in formation are to be established in Cardiff and Bournemouth as well.
The Oratorian vocation in this country is focussed on a city centre ministry with a penchant for celebrating the liturgy style and ministering pastorally to a diverse local community that city centres draw together. Though thought of as “traditional” they seem to draw good mixed congregations with a more than usual young element. My own opinion is that they are not “traditional” in the partisan way that word has come to signify but simply in touch with the Church’s living Tradition in liturgy and pastoral care. It’s important to emphasise that pastoral care part—I’m told (NOT by Oratorians, by the way) that even students who don’t attend Mass at the Oxford Oratory are more likely to go there to Confession if they have any serious matters to bring.
It has left me reflecting on my own experience of the Oratory, which began when I was eighteen. The first time attending Mass at the London Oratory was a revelatory experience.
I had been exposed to the sort of “classical” music that is the repertoire there before. I had experienced Latin in the liturgy before.
I grew up in here in the UK in two parishes: St Alban’s in Wallasey (a once lovely church mutilated by misconceived re-ordering in the 1970’s) where they still began the main Mass with sung Latin Asperges.
St Alban's before and after.
The lower picture taken at my First Mass.
The other was Ss Peter and Paul’s in New Brighton (closed and now joyfully re-opened under the care of the Institute of Christ the King) where the tradition of dressing the Italianate statues was still going strong).
However, going to the London Oratory for a Mass of Pentecost reduced me to tears in the pew. I think it must have been experiencing for the first time the combination of beautiful music in its proper setting, together with what was definitely some awesome ritual taking place in such a splendid setting, that moved my heart. I note that just because the ritual was taking place “up there” in the majestic sanctuary didn't prevent it having a very personal and activating effect on me “far away down in the pews.”
Like all Religious Communities, Oratories will have their difficulties but my own experience has always been of devout men, hard-working priests and loyal sons of the Church. It seems to be a recipe that is bucking the trend and attracting priests and postulants to its ranks.
I recall the summer I worked in the English College summer residence of Palazzola outside Rome, reading an old life of St Philip Neri. I can’t recall now the name of the biography or its author. It was a rather twee life of St Philip but it still radiated his personality and joy. St Philip's way of life obviously has some mileage in it for today’s failing church communities. Some sadly still consider the Oratory in this country to be at the extremes (even though they now count a bishop among their number). We might call them extreme but only in following St Philip's maxim:
If you wish to go to extremes,
let it be in sweetness, patience, humility and charity.
May God who has begun these good works bring them to completion.