With plans to establish an oratory in Edinburgh, Adam Coates investigates if they could be a new model for Catholic life.
York is an extraordinary city. Though smaller than county neighbours of Leeds or Sheffield, its charm is obvious as one passes through the portal of its medieval gates.
Yet its crowning glory is undoubtedly its Minster, the second largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, no doubt attracting some of the eight and a half million tourists who visit the city every year.
My wife and I recently found ourselves caught under a burning sun in York in the middle of a heatwave. We sought relief when and where we could. She, halfway through a pregnancy, and I looking like I might be too.
We dragged our failing feet from place to place in search of any cold comfort. The shade of the overhanging medieval buildings of the Shambles, our hotel’s elegant 1960s style bar, and the airconditioned cafe on Museum Street were all among the locations which provided soothing relief.
One of the coolest, and our most frequented destination, was the church of St Wilfred. Lying within the shadow of the imposing Minster, it is a fine neo-gothic structure, noted for its intricate doorway carvings and declared by one Victorian commentator to be ‘one of the most perfectly finished Catholic churches in England, rich in sculpture, stained glass, and fittings’.
Completed in 1864, St Wilfred’s entered a new period of its history when it was entrusted to the care of the Oratorians in 2013.
The Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, founded by the eponymous saint in the 16th century, is an unusual model. It is not a religious order whose members take vows, but rather individual communities of priests and lay brothers, bound together in prayer, charity, humility, and joy.
Its members are easily recognisable with their distinctive clerical attire, with the white of the collar folding over the black of the cassock around the whole neck except at the front. From their earliest days, oratories have been associated with exquisite sacred music, the first Oratory in Rome being a musical centre, attracting the leading composers of the day.
The York Oratory has quickly established itself as a spiritual oasis in the city. With three priests and two lay brothers, Mass, in both the old and the new form, is celebrated twice a day. During the week four Sunday Masses are available.
Confession is offered before every Mass and there is daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The parish has a busy life outside of the walls of the church: a Scripture study group, young adult group, a bellringing group, choirs, and other smaller societies all complement the sacramental life of the parish.
There is a seriousness to this sacramental life. Mass is offered with great care and reverence. The clergy have seriously invested in liturgical music; sumptuously sung Gregorian chant and polyphony have become an integral part of their worship, aiding liturgical participation through beauty.
Sitting with one of the Oratory priests recently, he in- formed me that in one month alone he had heard 300 Confessions; a figure greater than many priests would hear in a year. Praying in the church before Mass, I was moved by the sheer number of people coming for Confession.
Observing one woman, as she clutched a guide on how to go to the sacrament and struggling with the confessional door, I idly wondered if she was a first timer or coming back after a prolonged period, my mind no doubt enlivened by the fact I had been informed that the Oratory attracted many such people and made many converts.
The success of the Oratory in attracting people no doubt contributed towards one of their priests being made a bishop in 2014, the first Oratorian bishop in England since 1874.
In Britain, the Oratorians have seen an explosion of activity in recent years. In the mid-19th century St John Henry Newman and Fr Fredrick Faber established oratories in Birmingham and London respectively.
A mere two for more than a century, they became three in 1990 when an Oratory was established at Newman’s beloved Oxford. All three communities became renowned for their liturgy, preaching, music, and vitality.
Joined by York next, a community was formerly erected in Manchester in 2019 and ‘Oratories in Formation’ in Cardiff and Bournemouth are making their journey towards foundation
proper. Over in Ireland, Dublin, a city associated with Newman almost as much as Birmingham and Oxford, saw an Oratory in Formation established in 2020.
A quiet excitement surrounds a new project in Edinburgh, starting this month, where St Theresa’s in Craigmillar sees two priests beginning a process which could lead to the foundation of Scotland’s first Oratory.
Returning home to Glasgow on the late train, the sun retreated, the ghostly silhouettes of the trees illustrating the subtle change of English to Scottish countryside.
With the city coming into view, I wondered to myself a question: might the light of the Oratory one day shine on Glasgow?