Some saints stand alone. We appreciate their heroism without reference to their antecedents. Think of St Teresa of Calcutta. We recall her loving care for the poorest of the poor before we remember that she was Albanian. Or Padre Pio. We remember that he was a mystic and a stigmatist before we think of which branch of the Franciscans he belonged to. With other saints however, we understand them better when we know something of their spiritual ancestry. Our new Oratorian saint who was canonised this morning is such a one.
Throughout the long process leading to his canonisation, John Henry Newman is consistently referred to as the founder of the English Oratory. That is the fact which identifies him. Very good. But the important point about that fact is not so much that it is ‘English’, but much more that it is ‘Oratory’. Why? Because he could not have become an Oratorian without his vocation to follow in the steps of Our Glorious Patriarch St Philip Neri, the Apostle of Rome, in whose magnificent church we are privileged to be celebrating this evening.
After his conversion to Catholicism, why did Fr Newman choose the Oratory? He certainly looked at other religious Orders and institutes when he was studying in Rome. At the risk of sounding like the Sorting Hat, his was a good mind and he would have done well with the Jesuits, or the Dominicans. But no, he chose to be in ‘Oratory House’ with St Philip. John Henry discerned certain similarities between an Oratory and an Oxford college. But something more than that attracted him. What attracted Fr Newman to St Philip’s Oratory was its family character, and its smallness; yes, its smallness.
One Church historian has described the Oratory of St Philip Neri as ‘simply a marginal note in the history of the Church’. Well, it’s true. We are a very small Congregation around the world. We do not have centralized structures, or very minimal ones. Our communities are small. St John Henry thought that twelve was perhaps the largest comfortable number of members. More than that, and the house ceases to be the home of a family and becomes simply a residence or a presbytery.
Here is the key to why he was drawn to the Oratory. He understood, and wanted, the grace of living with a family; not a family by blood, but a family nonetheless. A family of friends with the same spiritual outlook who live together for life, and who support each other for life, in their journey to heaven. A family who pray and work together, in the spirit of St Philip Neri; there you have the Oratory. And that is where John Henry Newman chose to be. He chose to live and work at home, with the friends who had then become his family.
What else did John Henry learn from St Philip? Among many things he learned that in spreading the faith, there is no substitute for personal influence, the influence that one can offer others only by sincerely befriending them, and cheerfully walking alongside them. The Holy Father Pope Francis has often exhorted the clergy to ‘accompany’ their flock. To be with them, taking a genuine interest in them, sharing in their joys and sorrows. If ever two saints accompanied their flock, it was surely St Philip and St John Henry. They changed people’s lives by attracting them in a personal way, in a customized way, and so won them over to Christ, person to person, heart to heart.
St John Henry also learned from St Philip always to try and look beyond this world. They both knew that the world we see and hear and touch, this world is only a tiny segment of reality. Because this tiny portion is all that we see, we easily forget the transcendent realities which lie beyond the veil, whose attainment is the purpose of our religion, whose eternal enjoyment is our Christian destiny.
What a lot we have to give thanks for. Please may I share with you just one personal memory. In 1995 Pope John Paul II came here to the Roman Oratory and celebrated Holy Mass at this altar. Maybe some of you here this evening were also present on that occasion. The Pope said many good things to encourage us in our attempts to follow St Philip. At the end of his homily he went off-script and said: “I should add that I am interested and pleased to see that here you have also preserved your inherited and distinctive cultural patrimony”. Those words have remained with me over the years. I thought of them again tonight when the Schola were singing the beautiful motet by Fr Victoria ‘O quam gloriosum est’. The uplifting liturgical music which the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School have provided over this weekend is an inspiring example of the spiritual benefits that derive from preserving our inherited cultural patrimony. For that we should give thanks.
We also give thanks that both our two saints show us a fruitful way to live our Christian faith and to share it with others. They both evangelized by attracting souls, in a genuine and heart-warming way. A cold and lofty manner was not their way, and it must never be ours. Both our saints show us that in the Oratory, fraternal love and family affection are the basis on which we pursue our pilgrimage to heaven. This applies both to the clerical members of the Congregation, and equally to the Oratory’s extended family, the lay people for whom St Philip’s institute exists, to serve and to work with. We speak of a Community of Fathers and Brothers. It’s always good to recall that in the emergence of the Oratory, the lay people and the Brothers came first.
To know Christ Jesus is to want to share His life with others. St Philip Neri and St John Henry Newman show us that the best place to start is with family and friends, best of all when they both come together, in the same house.
(from the Musical Oratory at the Chiesa Nuova, Sunday 13th October 2019)