The Oratorians have a quirky reputation. Even their admirers are wont to point out their pencil-sharp side partings, finely wrought vestments and vintage spectacles. Yet, while their sense of style may be derided as old-fashioned, the congregation itself is no fusty backwater of English Catholicism. It is, rather, the centre of a resurgence.
In just three years the number of Oratories in England has doubled. Along with more established bases in Birmingham, London and Oxford, new communities have sprung up in Manchester, York and Cardiff. Three more Oratorians will settle in Bournemouth in September. These are not the ultra-refined locations populated by Sebastian Flytes that the Oratorian stereotype might suggest. The seaside town of Bournemouth offers trendy bars, coffee shops and a notable gay community, while facing serious economic challenges such as considerable homelessness. It is a difficult town for any Catholic priest to take on.
But the Oratorians’ track record bodes well. Indeed, it is arguably their pastoral success that accounts for their sudden growth.
A good example of this is in Oxford. The Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga has, according to William Oddie, the former Catholic Herald editor, seen its congregation “quadruple” over the past 20 years since it became an Oratory.
The Oxford Oratory, Dr Oddie says, has been a “conversion centre” and a sanctuary for “refugees from liberal parishes” since the arrival of Fr Robert Byrne, now Bishop Byrne, who was provost there for 20 years before being appointed an auxiliary bishop of Birmingham. “Twenty years ago the liturgy was at its most dull and banal – it was dreadful! No wonder Anglo-Catholics joined the Oratory,” Dr Oddie says. The Oratory, he says, actually made people “look forward to going to Mass on Sunday”.
But the attraction was not just beautiful liturgies and unashamedly orthodox sermons. Dr Oddie says the Oratorians are popular because they are “wonderfully pastoral”. He explains: “If you’re in trouble there will be an Oratorian in your front room. They also look after the poor and visit prisoners and captives. They’re a kind of example of what everyone thinks a Catholic priest ought to be like.”
The Oratorians were also given a boost during the papal visit of 2010, when Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, who established the Oratorian Congregation in England. Newman drew attention to the intellectual tradition behind the order, which intelligently defends the most counter-cultural teachings of Catholicism, a characteristic which is sought after in an increasingly secular England and Wales. Another feature of the congregation offers a bulwark against a hostile secular climate – the idea of secular priests living together in community, rather than in an isolated presbytery.
One Oratorian I speak to insists the growing popularity of the congregation is not restricted to Britain. “The Oratory as an institute is on the rise at the moment across the world from Australia to South Africa, from France to Wales, and from Kingston, Jamaica, to the United States,” he says. “There are new project Oratories founded with surprising frequency. The Oratory as an institute is growing across the world as other religious congregations are shrinking.”
He also suggests joyfulness might be a significant factor. “Could the growing sense in the Church that the joy of the Gospel is an important note in our reaching out to the world be relevant in the expansion of the Oratorian idea? St Philip Neri [the congregation’s founder] is after all the Apostle of Christian joy.”
The support of local bishops is vital for the growth of any religious communities and, in the case of the Oratorians, it seems that the Hierarchy are beginning to recognise their value. As one priest put it: “For new Oratorian communities to be formed, the local bishop needs to give his consent. So what we may be seeing is also a change in the episcopal mind in Britain which now sees the Oratory as a helpful element in the evangelisation of the diocese with a proven record of reviving and running a parish well and attracting vocations.”
He continues: “Both the York and Bournemouth Oratories have been started as projects because the bishops have actually asked for them. In the past there had been ideas to found Oratories in other British towns, but they foundered because the bishops were not on board.”
It seems that the sudden expansion of Oratories may be down not to a sudden change in the Church, but to bishops catching up with the faithful.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.