Article

The Birmingham Oratory

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People often ask why John Henry Newman founded an Oratory. Why didn’t he become an ordinary parish priest or join a religious order like the Jesuits? Like many questions, it has more than one answer.

Heart Speaks to Heart – A Vocation to Friendship

Newman’s journey into the Catholic Church was not a solitary one. As an Anglican clergyman and as a University teacher at Oxford, he made many friends and influenced lots of people. Some of these wanted to remain close to him and to work with him. While they were still in the Church of England, Newman and a group of friends refurbished an old stable block in the village of Littlemore outside Oxford. They had rooms, a chapel and a library. They worked together, prayed and studied. They continued to do parish work. All the while their common life was drawing them closer to the Catholic Church.

John Henry Newman became a Catholic on 9th October 1845. He was received by a Passionist Priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi. Many of his friends became Catholics at about the same time. They became Catholics together and wanted to remain together. What were they to do?

As diocesan priests they might be sent to different parts of a large diocese; in an order they could be dispersed to the four corners of the world. A monastery would have kept them together, but they were pastors and not monks. They did not want to withdraw from the world.

An Oratory is a stable community in which priests and brothers live together in one place, usually in a city, engaged in whatever works their individual talents dictate. Some may be scholars, others teachers, some chaplains to schools, hospitals or prisons. If the Oratory has a parish, one or two will be parish priests. An Oratorian is always free to leave his community, finding a diocese if he is a priest or returning to ordinary life in the world if he is a layman. For Newman and his friends, this flexible institution was the perfect answer to their unique situation.

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St Philip Neri

But Newman’s choice of the Oratory was more than a matter of practicality. Newman was enchanted by the figure of St Philip Neri who founded the Oratory in Rome in the sixteenth century. People who think of Newman as the dry scholar are often surprised by his attraction to the patron saint of joy with a reputation for practical jokes. Their surprise arises from the fact that there is more to both men than the popular images suggest. In truth, their personalities met in many points.

Newman and St Philip both, from an early age, had a deep interior relationship with God in prayer. St Philip’s prayer as a child was remarked upon by all who knew him; Newman, even as a small boy, was intensely aware of the spiritual world finding it more real than the world around him. Both men, at a young age, had very marked conversion experiences. Both lived into great old age and were marked by a zeal for the things of God and an inward peace that can be an example to all people at every stage of life.

St Philip loved to spend time in the Roman catacombs, praying at the tombs of the ancient martyrs, marvelling at the faith of the early Church. Newman called St Philip the “man of primitive times”. Newman’s own journey to the Catholic Church began when he began to read the works of the “Fathers”. These ancient writers put into words the Faith for which those same martyrs died. Newman saw that whatever the superficial differences, the Catholic Church of his own time (and of all times) expressed the same Faith. St Philip established a tradition in the Oratory of historical and archaeological scholarship among the members of his own community. The Venerable Cesare Baronius, one of these early Oratorians, is known as the Father of Church History. John Henry Newman eagerly seized on this tradition.

Newman and St Philip were both cultured men, Newman the Oxford don and St Philip a Florentine of the Renaissance. They loved music, art and literature. And they saw that this love for all things beautiful, if used in the service of God, did not have to be sacrificed, but could be used to draw other people closer to God.

Both cared about the welfare and education of the young. St Philip at the Oratory, and Newman at his Oratory School in Birmingham, which later moved to Woodcote, South Oxfordshire. Newman founded the school in 1859 in response to numerous requests from the Catholic laity at the time. Aware of the poor opportunities for secondary education for the sons of Catholic families in England, he set up the school based on his belief that boys should be educated in a spiritual, cultural and intellectual environment.

St Philip and Newman both lived in cities and saw it as their duty to bring the best they had to offer to draw people closer to God in worship. The beautiful celebration of the liturgy, the public prayer of the Church, in fine buildings that make use of the best art, architecture and music is a tradition that Newman inherited from St Philip and that continues in the Oratory today.

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The Birmingham Oratory

Knowing about St Philip Neri and why Newman found this saint attractive helps us understand the reason Newman was drawn to the Oratory, and the kind of holiness that was his. But why did he establish the Oratory in Birmingham? Again, there are different answers to the question.

Newman became a Catholic at Oxford which was then in the Midland District whose centre was at Birmingham. (Oxford is still in the Archdiocese of Birmingham.) Newman put himself and his friends at the service of the Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Wiseman and followed his advice. It was Wiseman who saw at once the aptness of the Oratory and of St Philip’s spirit for Newman and his friends.

The need at Birmingham was very great. It was a growing city with few churches and a great opportunity for apostolate among different groups of people: there were Irish Catholics who had come to the Midlands in search of work; unchurched masses in the industrial city; and wealthy and influential individuals who controlled all this. Birmingham in Newman’s time was the boom city of the age. Perhaps Newman was also able to bring some sense of a higher purpose to its wealth-creating and utilitarian spirit.

With hindsight we can see that Newman’s presence in Birmingham, rather than the more obvious cultural or political centres of Oxford or of London, freed him from distractions, enabling him to lead a life of writing and teaching, and perhaps above all, of guiding countless people through his voluminous correspondence. Not that this was all that Newman did. He founded a school and a university and built two houses and a church! Newman was nothing if not practical.

Once Newman had become a Catholic, Bishop Wiseman advised him to go to Rome to find his vocation – with a strong hint that this might well be the Oratorians. Once Newman had chosen the Oratory and made his novitiate, Wiseman advised the Pope, Blessed Pius IX, to send Newman back to Birmingham.

In 1848 the community was established in Maryvale on the outskirts to the city, moving then to a disused gin factory in Alcester Street in the centre of the city and finally to Edgbaston in 1852 where a purpose built house was built which is occupied by the community today. Newman only knew a temporary church and it was not until 1909 that the present fine church in the Roman basilica style was opened as a memorial to the Cardinal.

The Oratory since Newman’s Time

Newman established an independent parish for Edgbaston and Ladywood, which the Oratorians have served since his time. The Oratorians have continued to work in education in the city, most notably in St Philip’s Grammar School, now closed but which served the Catholic boys of the city for many generations. The Fathers continue to work as chaplains to schools, hospitals and prisons, to write and teach, and to conserve and promote the legacy of their venerable founder. Above all they live an Oratorian community life of prayer, private and public, and many people come from all over the Midlands for the beautiful music and liturgy.

The Birmingham Oratory has made two foundations, London in 1849 and Oxford in 1990. But many more Oratories owe their foundation directly or indirectly to the influence of Newman’s house, particularly the Oratories in Germany, Austria, the United States, Canada and South Africa. In a very real way Newman can be said to be the modern refounder of the Oratory. He showed in the house he founded in Birmingham how St Philip’s sixteenth century community life of prayer and practical charity can be reinterpreted and lived in the modern world.