"What degradation for religion. Why, it is worse than the socialists ... sad times, I cannot imagine what the world will come to if it goes on much longer." With these words the Gothic revival architect, Augustus Welby Pugin, welcomed the Oratorian Fathers to London in 1847!
The Oratorian Fathers are a group of secular priests who live in community, bound together in charity, and who follow the rule of life of Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595). Their principal apostolate is the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, preaching and hearing confessions.
Almost 150 years later, there are some who would still agree with Pugin. But there are many more who would not. After all, over 3,000 Londoners of all ages worship every Sunday in the enormous High Renaissance Early Baroque church (consecrated in 1884) in Brompton Road that has come to be known as the Brompton Oratory. The only Catholic church in the heart of London to draw a larger congregation is Westminster Cathedral.
What is it about the Oratory, and about the Oratorian Fathers that attracts so many, and raises the ire of not a few? Perhaps it is its reproduction Italianate style, that seems so out of place in West London? But to judge solely on a style would be fickle. Or perhaps it is the Oratory's unashamedly Catholic stance in an age when some in the Church appear to have minimalised her radical and counter-cultural mission?
For there are no banal, self-worshipping liturgies here. Catholic worship, not entertainment, is the order of every day. Recently, the writings of Monsignor Klaus Gamber and of Cardinal Ratzinger have recalled the fact that the practice of celebrating Mass facing the people does not have the ancient origins that some liturgical historians have claimed for it, and that it is not a theological, pastoral or even psychological necessity to continue the practice today.
The Fathers of the Oratory need not trouble: they have maintained the traditional practice of celebrating Mass facing the altar with the people, and have had the courage of their convictions. Their present superior, Father Michael Napier, distinguished himself defending this practice as early as 1971.
Mass is celebrated at the Oratory in the vernacular and in Latin. Of the ten Sunday Masses, one is according to the Traditional Rite. At all Masses, Holy Communion is received kneeling at the altar rails. The Solemn Mass on Sunday at 11.00, celebrated according to the earliest form of the new order Mass, with English readings, fills the pews each week, drawing over 1,000 people, young and old, of all classes. Its choir is renowned for preserving the Church's treasury of sacred music of Gregorian Chant and polyphony. The junior choir, which sings each week at the 10.00 English Mass, is said by some to maintain an even higher standard.
Vespers and Benediction are celebrated in the Traditional Rite every Sunday afternoon, followed by a procession to the seventeenth century Lady Altar, where prayers are offered for the conversion of England. Six Masses are offered on weekdays (one in Latin), and a Holy Hour is held on one evening during the week, with Benediction on another, and Solemn Benediction on feast days.
The feasts and seasons of the Church's year are celebrated and observed faithfully and fully. The discipline of Lent, the stark reality of Good Friday, the hope of Easter, the fire of Pentecost, and the Church's joy at the example of her saints, all find expression in the music, vestments, and furnishings of the Oratory Church. The Forty Hours devotion, and the Corpus Christi procession out into Brompton Road, rejoice in the precious gift of the Blessed Sacrament in defence of the belief in which much English blood has been spilt. Few churches in the English-speaking world can boast of over 1,000 people present at the Benediction at the end of this annual procession.
Confessions are heard daily by the Fathers, who approach this apostolate with the sense of importance that their founder attached to it. Similarly, they take time to prepare and deliver their sermons. The Church's teaching, clearly expounded from the imposing pulpit, is likewise firmly proposed in the many confessionals. Papal teaching such as Pope John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor is welcomed, and commended to the faithful.
Many traditional Catholics, particularly the young, find themselves at the Oratory. However, the constant danger of spiritual sloth in a place where many seek refuge from abuses prompted one Oratorian, Father Charles Dilke, to remind the congregation at Solemn Mass on Home Mission Sunday this year: "There is a danger here ... for we ... orthodox or traditional Catholics ... We tend to concentrate on criticising other Catholics [and can] regard the Mass as simply an opportunity for private nostalgia or an aesthetic experience ... a sort of Catholic club, not the Kingdom of God ... [We] don't [so much] love Our Lord ... [but] love the ceremonies, fine music, or ancient customs."
Indeed, the Oratory is no 'hollow-branch' of the Church, delighting in the full and solemn celebration of the Church's liturgy alone. Such celebration is, as Father Dilke went on to point out, for the glory of Almighty God and to provide a basis from which those who participate can go out and engage in "the labour of God's vineyard." As one Australian tourist exclaimed recently after visiting for a number of weeks, "Given all that the Oratory offers, to go to hell after experiencing 'Brompton' would be to go to hell in a clear blue sky!"
And the Oratory provides much more than sacramental worship to assist its people in their solemn duty to avoid hell and to attain heaven. The monthly Parish Magazine lists over twenty organisations, including: two excellent Catholic schools, one primary, one secondary; courses in the Catholic faith, Sacred Scripture, and spirituality; a library; a bookshop; a conference of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul; groups of young people; and more. Each organisation is under the spiritual care of at least one of the Fathers, who are also responsible for hospital chaplaincies and regular parish visitation. Parishioners are encouraged to join pilgrimages organised by the Oratory and other parishes.
As in any parish, the annual Summer Fete is an important event. The garden of the Oratory House, one of the largest inner London private gardens, hosts a variety of stalls and activities, organised and staffed by parishioners and the many parish organisations. The variety of talents contributes towards making a day which succeeds in raising funds and parishioners' spirits each year. Other fund-raising events include exhibitions, concerts and recitals by parishioners and other artists of high calibre.
Countless people have been associated with the London Oratory since its foundation. Famous visitors have included John Henry Cardinal Newman (of the earlier Birmingham Oratory), Franz Liszt, Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII), and Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (later Paul VI). Monsignor Ronald Knox lived at the Oratory for just over one year after being received into the Church. He later joined Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson and Father Vincent McNabb O.P. as one of the Oratory's famous guest preachers. Oscar Wilde was very nearly received into the Church by one of the Fathers in 1878. Unknown, and perhaps of far more significance are the thousands - Londoners, visitors and tourists - who have and who continue to make up the living tradition that is the London Oratory.
Today, a community of eight priests, (another to be ordained next year), and two brothers in formation, are the custodians, though not the authors, of this rich tradition. It was brought to London by Father Wilfred Faber and companions in the 1840s. Since that time, as Monsignor Knox stated whilst preaching at the 1949 centenary celebrations: "... the Fathers of the Oratory have been at their post; and as each has made his last journey to the grave a fresh priest has taken his place, ambitious in his turn to bring the great heart of St Philip into the great heart of London; the old patient attendance to duty, the old gracious courtesy, the old love of music and of pageantry, have never died out."
That, forty-five turbulent years later, Knox's words are still applicable is a testament not only to such generous men, but to the charism given Saint Philip some four centuries ago.
This charism is at the heart of four Oratories in England, the most recent being a foundation in Oxford, canonically erected this year. The Congregation has spread from Rome throughout Europe and the New World at a steady pace; alas, not as yet to Australia. Many houses find that their traditional priestly life and ministry attracts sufficient vocations to ensure their viability. As other congregations and orders suffer the fate, not uncommon in the history of the Church, of dying out, the Congregation of the Oratory appears secure in its priestly charism of faithful service at the altar, pulpit and confessional.
Simon Matthews is an Australian journalist and teacher now resident in London.