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Fr Wilfrid Faber: the author who John XXIII read before bedtime

Fr Wilfrid Faber once said: ‘I walk down the street in my habit and I feel I dispel invincible ignorance wherever I go'

Preaching in Rome last Holy Thursday Pope Francis exhorted priests to be like shepherds who “take on the smell of their sheep”. This is an image that could have been crafted with

Fr Wilfrid Faber in mind. While founding the London Oratory in the middle of the 19th century, Faber not only lived with the odour of his flock; he also exposed himself to the contagions that infected it and even gave nourishment to its fleas.

Blessed Pope Pius IX had asked the English Oratorians to employ themselves primarily in the conversion and instruction of the “educated classes”. The opening of the London Oratory in its first premises near the Strand, however, coincided with an overwhelming influx of Irish immigrants fleeing famine. Faber immediately found himself immersed in corporal works of mercy among the capital’s most desperate inhabitants.

Within two months of opening in May 1849, his new chapel had to be closed for de-infestation. The stench inside was said to bring on fits. Cholera and influenza were endemic in the neighbourhood. Fleas had invaded the Fathers’ cassocks, confessionals and rooms.

Faber suffered sleepless nights because of the itching. He nevertheless summoned enough energy to establish the Company of St Patrick, enlisting laity as “visitors” to patrol the local slums and “affectionately force” the Catholics they found there to return to the sacraments. The Company opened reading rooms across London and encouraged social cohesion through concerts and other entertainments. In Bloomsbury the Fathers opened the first Catholic “Ragged School”.

With the Oratory’s re-location to a more tranquil base in South Kensington in 1854, Faber might have imagined himself free to minister to the spiritual formation of his “poor Belgravians”. But the real poor followed him. A contemporary account describes Catholics from “the vile purlieus of Drury Lane” making pilgrimages across Hyde Park to be elevated by “all that is grand and solemn and sublime in the ceremonies of the Church”. Evidently there was no suggestion in those days of any dichotomy between solemnity in liturgy and ministry to the poor. Worshipping God in the beauty of holiness was seen as an instrument of “social outreach” in itself.

The London Oratorians soon realised that the Catholic poor were not to be a temporary distraction from their papal commission to form well-instructed gentry and middle classes. The poor of every class must have an honoured place in their apostolate. Faber would not have wanted it any other way. Shortly before his ordination as a Catholic priest in 1847, he disclosed the main source of an “unspeakable happiness” he had experienced as an Anglican clergyman: “During those eight years I gave my life to the poor, lived among their children, was continually in their cottages, or at their death beds.”

He continued: “Now that I am on the point of being ordained a Catholic priest, I feel ever more strongly the desire to devote all my health and strength to win my poor countrymen back to the true light of the Gospel, to console them in all their tribulations, whether of body or of soul, to sacrifice my own ease and comfort for them, and knowing so well as I do the trials and tribulations of the poor, to endeavour to make religion as easy and as kindly to them as possible.”

Faber’s legacy lives on today in a vibrant Society of St Vincent de Paul, and in the Oratory’s primary and secondary schools, which still provide education for Catholics unable to pay fees. Many of the staff who live and work at the Oratory are rehabilitated homeless. Sandwiches are distributed daily at the door and a high percentage of the priests’ “on duty” hours in the parlours is spent in conversation with Faber’s disadvantaged and destitute. The Fathers are currently investigating how the resources of expertise and good will among parishioners might be further harnessed to honour Christ in His poor.

Faber died 150 years ago this month, on September 26 1863, aged 49. In the words of Mgr Henry Edward Manning, social reformer and future Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, “He was a great priest; he was the means of bringing multitudes into the one Fold, and he died as a priest should die, amid the prayers and tears of his flock… a great servant of God has been taken from us.” The most telling of all the tributes, however, was the huge number of Catholic poor that converged on the church from all over London for his funeral. Many
of the “quality” could not gain access and had to stand outside in the Brompton Road.

Despite the accolades from those who knew him, Faber’s memory has been bruised in recent decades by authors who have misread his complex personality. This is largely thanks to Meriol Trevor’s two-volume life of Blessed John Henry Newman, published in 1962. Undoubtedly Miss Trevor offers fascinating insights into the nuances of the noble character of Newman, but the portrait she presents of Faber is an extravagance of caricature. Exploiting the famous tensions and misunderstandings that coloured relations between the two, she makes her hero Newman shine all the more magnificently against a sinister background of Faber’s supposed narcissism and megalomania. Comparing Faber with the “evil leaders” of the 20th century, she even suggests that her bête noire was “demonic”.

As evidence of Faber’s excesses, Miss Trevor relates that he made a novice recite the Miserere on his knees with arms outstretched and 150 picture frames around his neck. No such penance was ever issued, although Faber’s community did joke about the idea of outlandish mortifications. A contemporary cartoon suggests that when Faber addressed the Fathers in a “Chapter of Faults”, the sound of laughter reached the novitiate three floors above. This was in the spirit of St Philip Neri, the “Apostle of Joy” who established the first Oratory in Rome in the 16th century. Finding that the atmosphere in the refectory was becoming too earnest, St Philip once forced a Father to come into dinner shouldering a live monkey that brandished a gun and wore a biretta trimmed with purple taffeta.

The lurking trolls of puritanism and pusillanimity mean that the expression of humour can be hazardous within the context of religious life. St Philip was accused of frivolity and much graver faults, but because he was a saint the allegations pleased him. The converts Newman and Faber were lambasted by England’s “old” Catholics for wearing their soutanes outdoors. When Faber countered criticism by saying “I walk down the street in my habit and I feel I dispel invincible ignorance wherever I go”, he must have known that this would not enhance his standing with the goody-goodies of this world. Modern authors have tended to misinterpret Faber’s irony as arrogance and “silliness”.

Faber’s hymns and writings are seasoned with a fulsome and playful flavour that usually appeals to expansive personalities who do not take themselves too seriously. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that his spiritual masterpiece All for Jesus was to be found on the bedside table of Blessed Pope John XXIII. According to Cardinal Heenan, it was His Holiness’s favourite night-time reading.

The London Oratorians are sometimes asked if there is any chance of Faber’s beatification. In an age of po-faced conformism the answer must be no. In some liberated era of the future where irony and individuality are free to flourish, who knows? Perhaps the intercession of the countless Catholic poor he helped into heaven will eventually achieve this grace.

One last word on the relations between this great shepherd and the fleas of his flock. Nettled when a parishioner advised him to burn the kneelers from the de-infested chapel in the Strand as a precaution, Faber replied abruptly that there was not a single flea left in the place. Days later he wrote an apology which ended: “We were both right, however; there was not a single flea in the chapel. They were all married with large families.”

Fr Julian Large is the Provost of the London Oratory. The 150th anniversary of Fr Faber’s death will be marked at Brompton Oratory by a solemn votive Mass of Thanksgiving at 6.30pm tonight (September 26)

This article first appeared in the prinbt edition of The Catholic Herald dated 20/9/13