Brompton Oratory and Fr Frederick William Faber: my prejudices proved wrong

A view of the Brompton Oratory (PA)

I happened to be in South Kensington last week, so visited the Brompton Oratory, a church I do not know well. Even though it was the middle of the afternoon, I managed to get to Confession on the spur of the moment; the Oratory has an admirable policy of being available to hear Confessions most of the day, either in the church or in the Oratory House, if you ring the bell of the priests’ quarters next to a side chapel. This is more convenient, flexible and definitely less crowded than Westminster Cathedral.

Brompton Oratory is, of course, associated with Fr Frederick William Faber. Just to show what unconscious prejudices we can absorb unawares, I was under the (quite false) impression that the church, situated in South Kensington, caters primarily for rich, traditional Catholics of the sort who wear coats with velvet lapels. I was also under the impression that in the “choice” to be made between Newman and Faber, Newman was, as it were, the Good Guy and Faber the Bad Guy. I am glad to say these prejudices have been blown away, first by reading the enlightening article by Fr Julian Large, Provost of the London Oratory, in the Herald of September 20, which explains why the Oratory was so highly regarded by the London poor; and then by reading the Letter by Fr Edward Van Den Bergh in the Herald of October 4, which illustrates Fr Faber’s apostolic endeavours in Cotton, a small village in Staffordshire. It made me think of St John Vianney’s labours in Ars.

In other words Faber, in his own way, was a good and holy priest. Mea culpa for my past prejudices. Fr Large relates a charming anecdote of Fr Faber: that, contrary to the practice of the day, he used to wear his soutane in public, explaining it with the words, “I walk down the street in my habit and feel I dispel invincible ignorance wherever I go.” There is truth behind the humour here. The actor Alec Guinness related in his autobiography how he was seen wearing a soutane in France when filming the role of a priest and was thus taken to be one by a small boy; the incident was one of the steps that brought Guinness into the Church. I have always disliked the fashion for European Jesuits to wear jackets and ties (how on earth were we to know they were priests?) and hope that a Jesuit Pope will correct this casual dress.

However, Fr Large’s article doesn’t mention the aspect of Fr Faber’s priestly life through which I was first introduced to him: his hymns. He featured prominently in the old Westminster Hymnal we used when I was a child and I absorbed more of the Faith from singing the words of “Faith of our fathers”, “Jesus, my Lord, my God, my all”, “Sweet Saviour bless us ere we go” and others, than from any RE lessons in school. That they went out of fashion after Vatican II and were regarded as too emotional and sentimental was a great pity; emotion and sentiment matter in hymns and when, as with Faber, they are fused with doctrine it is a potent and instructive mix.

In the Telegraph of October 3, I note that Allan Massie has written an article subtitled “Prayers and hymns learnt in childhood are a spiritual resource that lasts a lifetime”. This is so true and Fr Faber should be given due credit here as well as for other pastoral aspects of his priestly life.