Blessed John Henry Newman | The Oratorian (Michael Bullock, OGS)

A paper delivered at the February 2019 Chapter of the London and Cambridge College
By Michael Bullock, OGS

NewmanThis paper on John Henry Newman does not make any claim to originality. I have relied extensively on the exhaustive biography by Father Ian Ker, published in 1988, sometimes to the point of quoting verbatim. I confess I have used Wikipedia, I hope with discernment, to verify dates; I note however that Wikipedia meticulously puts after his name the Latin abbreviation Cong.Orat. (Congregation of the Oratory), arguably the equivalent of OGS. It is the purpose of this paper to explore what Newman meant by being an Oratorian, what were the sources of his Oratorian vocation, how they related to the vocation of our founders if at all, and what lessons if any there are for us as we endeavour, under the direction of our OGS Rule, to live a life of devotion and service.

Most of us will be familiar with the broad outline of the life of John Henry Newman as an Anglican. Born in 1801, he was a Fellow of Oriel College Oxford from 1822 and was vicar of St Mary’s Oxford from 1828. In the years after 1833 he was a prominent figure in what is called the Tractarian or Oxford Movement. In 1842 he retired to Littlemore within his parish and established a form of common life with a group of like-minded men. In 1843 Newman resigned the vicarage of St Mary Oxford and on 8 October 1845 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church together with two others of the Littlemore community.

At this point I propose to break with a chronological approach to Newman’s life to say something about what the word Oratory would have meant to him at the end of 1845. Oratorian at that date would have referred to two groups. The first was the French Oratory of Pierre de Bérulle, established in Paris in 1611 and approved by Papal Bull in 1613. The French Oratory was marked by the Christ-centred spirituality of its founder and was described as intended for the sanctification of secular priests, and for the rehabilitation of the priestly office among the laity. In at least the first part of that description I discern certain echoes in the Introduction to the OGS Notes.

Philip Neri
St Philip Neri

In the later eighteenth century the French Oratory did not escape accusations of misdirected zeal and Jansenism; in the following century it did not emerge from the French Revolution unscathed. The second Oratorian group was the Oratory of St Philip Neri founded in Rome and its constitutions sanctioned by Pope Paul V in 1612. This Oratory of St Philip Neri was a congregation of secular priests living in community without vows; each house was independent and elected its Superior for three years, which was to mark the development of Newman’s life as an Oratorian. The chief task of the Oratorians was described as being to lead men to God by prayer, frequent popular preaching and the sacraments; there was always to be a priest in the confessional. The intellectual aspect of the Oratory was seen in church historians and canonists whose labour of the mind was actively encouraged. There was a stress on liturgy, but also on providing attractive presentations of the liturgy, our word oratorio derives from their creative use of music. While this hardly sounds like fresh expressions in worship, we may find ourselves thinking of our sometime brother Eric Milner-White under whom when Dean of Kings College, Cambridge, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols took off, not to mention all troubadours of the Lord.

To return to Newman in 1845: Newman’s letters suggest that Fr Dominic Barberi who received him saw in the Littlemore community the beginning of a new religious congregation and even that the Littlemore time might serve as part of a novitiate. Newman left Littlemore on 22 February 1846 for Old Oscott (or Maryvale) near Birmingham, and was to be under the direction of Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, the Vicar Apostolic. Wiseman at Maryvale envisaged Newman’s future in a body of priests engaged in apostolic work of an intellectual rather than parochial nature. On 28 October 1846 Newman arrived in Rome to prepare for ordination.

It is recorded that on the day after Christmas 1846 Newman and his close friend Ambrose St John visited the Roman Oratory. With its library and sets of rooms, it reminded Newman of an Oxford college. As a community of secular priests living under a rule but not under vows, the Oratory of St Philip Neri offered a middle way between a religious order and the diocesan priesthood. Oratorians were allowed to keep their own property, and Newman admitted that to take a vow of poverty would try his faith very much. Newman was unimpressed by what he had heard and seen in Catholic Europe of the great orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans and he began to feel that Wiseman had been right to advise them to become Oratorians; Newman wrote that the Oratorians’ external secularism with a gentle inward bond of asceticism seemed to meet the contemporary situation. The Oratory offered opportunities for learning and scholarship, as well as for active pastoral work. Oratories were always situated in towns, and there was ample scope for apostolic and evangelistic work among the de-Christianised population of a manufacturing town like Birmingham.  As for the founder of the Oratory, Philip Neri reminded Newman vividly of Keble with his mixture of “extreme hatred of humbug, playfulness, nay oddity, tender love for others, and severity”.

After Newman’s ordination to the priesthood on 30 May 1847 he went to begin his Oratorian novitiate at Santa Croce in Rome with other members of the Maryvale community, who had come out to Rome to join him. In November 1847 the papal bull arrived, so that he was now an Oratorian priest and Superior of the English Oratory. He and St John arrived back in Oscott and towards the end of January 1849 Newman left for Birmingham “for a gloomy gin distillery of which we have taken a lease, fitting up a large room for a chapel”. This new Oratory in Alcester Street was formally opened on the Feast of the Purification 2 February 1849. Alcester Street on google maps today shows a picture of a boarded-up shop covered with graffiti, which I suggest reflects a continuity.

“Just the life I have ever coveted, time for study, yet missionary work of the most intimate”

Nevertheless Newman described his calling in Birmingham as “just the life I have ever coveted, time for study, yet missionary work of the most intimate”. He saw the Oratory as a small, intimate community, like a family, literally no more than twelve members together. Alcester Street Oratory had a mission or parish attached, rather against Newman’s inclinations, but his parochial work does look seriously heroic. He had originally sensed a call to the “doctior et honestior ordo” (the more learned and respectable sort) but just as St Philip Neri saw his mission in Rome moved on from the gilded youth among the cultured despisers, Newman’s congregation of hundreds consisted largely of the wretched of the earth who had been drawn, especially from Irish poverty, to the wretchedness of an industrial revolution city. An interesting pastoral vignette is of Newman agonising over the conversion of servant girls, knowing that their Catholic religion would make it more difficult for them to obtain a position under the puritan burghers of Birmingham.

Much of the biography of Newman in the 1850s is taken up with his disputes with his fellow-convert and fellow-Oratorian Fr Frederick Faber, who was responsible for the Oratory House in London. Issues arose especially during Newman’s absence in Dublin in the 1850s, directing the abortive establishment of a Catholic University of Ireland. There was talk of founding an Oratory house in Dublin, which came to nothing. Newman described his position during his Dublin years as “no longer superior, but still founder” and made the point that because Oratorians have no common Superior “they are best friends at a distance”. In 1852 the Birmingham Oratory House relocated from Alcester Street to Hagley Road, Edgbaston, where it still stands and where Newman died in 1890.

Father Ker’s biography says less of Newman as an Oratorian in the decades from the 1850s to his death, but concentrates rightly on his ideas as expressed in his writings. Perhaps when a religious congregation is just functioning according to its call, there is less in the way of events to record.

Fast forward from Newman’s death in 1890 to 1913, when our founders cycled out from Cambridge colleges to Little Gidding to draw up our Notes and Rule. There may be detected in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, I venture to suggest, a tension between those who drink from the well of Nicholas Ferrar and those who drink from the Roman Oratory of St Philip Neri. Obviously it is clear where Newman would have stood. Little Gidding is a distinctly Anglican cultus, hence the OGS bike ride, but perhaps a cultus in decline: to our loss, I suggest, as was made clear in Christopher’s paper last year.  Little Gidding was never a clerical community, and emphatically not a celibate community, whereas the Oratory of St Philip Neri existed partly to support the spiritual needs of a newly professionalised secular clergy. This professionalization of the secular clergy occurred in the Counter Reformation in Catholic Europe, but also in the world from which our founders emerged.  OGS has never been confined to priests but while we have always valued lay brothers, ordained men have always been in the majority. When I imagine the lives of our founders around 1913, and relate them to Newman’s biography, I must say I see the world of Oriel Common Room rather than Alcester Street Birmingham. And yet I suggest there has been a strong Alcester Street call in the lives of OGS brothers; by 1919 OGS men were taking on heroic ministries both at home and abroad. There is Father Wilfrid Knox, ministering to the privileged young men of his Cambridge College, but also “helping out” in a run-down church in East London, and accompanying the hop-pickers when they went to Kent. Such ministries are often not recorded for the best possible reasons, but we can read between lines in the necrology. Newman’s Oratory may be compared and contrasted with our OGS, and it is the purpose of this paper to encourage such comparing and contrasting. I like to think that it is with the right sort of pride that we write OGS after our names, as Newman wrote Cong.Orat.