On the morning of 26th September 1863 Fr Wilfrid Faber lay dying in Oratory House. Fr John Bowden prayed with him during the last hour of his life, and recorded what he saw: “Just after seven a sudden change came over the Father; his head turned a little to the right, his breathing seemed to stop; a few spasmodic gasps followed, and his spirit passed away. In those last moments his eyes opened, clear, bright, intelligent as ever, in spite of the look of agony on his face, but opened to the sight of nothing earthly, with a touching expression, half of sweetness, and half of surprise.”
Tributes flowed. In the words of Mgr Manning, future 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.”
A certain amount of cold tripe has been deposited on the memory of Fr Faber in more recent decades, by authors who have managed to misread the complexities of a nature that was impulsive and playful but also profoundly serious and generous. For anyone who is familiar with the life and achievements of the ‘real Faber’, however, and especially for those of us whose lives are warmed by a daily sense of his benign fatherly presence, it is impossible to imagine that he might not by now be rejoicing in the eternal vision of the Blessed Trinity in Heaven.
He is not, however, a canonized saint. We shall therefore celebrate a Requiem for his soul, as was done on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1963. This will take place at 8am on 26th September. If, after a century and a half, Fr Faber no longer needs the graces that will flow from Calvary in St Wilfrid’s chapel that morning, then we can be sure that they will be distributed to a soul that does.
Later on the same day we shall celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving for our beloved founder’s life, and for all of the blessings that God has worked and continues to work through him. This will be a solemn votive Mass of the Most Holy Trinity, and will take place at 6.30pm. The special preacher will be Fr Anthony Symondson S.J., distinguished architectural historian and a long-standing friend of the Oratory fathers.
And so Fr Faber’s death will be marked by prayers for his soul and thanksgiving for an extraordinary life that made such a priceless contribution to the spiritual landscape of this country and far beyond. But the question remains: what else can we do at the Oratory to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of our founding father?
The Oratory itself is a monument to Fr Faber. He did not see the current church which was built twenty years after his death, but virtually every sanctuary lamp and candle pricket is imbued with the Romanitas of which he was probably the greatest champion that this realm has ever known. Every time we restore or embellish a chapel we honour the memory of the pioneer who managed to establish an outpost of Counter-Reformation Rome in Victorian South Kensington. The care and devotion that still go into celebrating liturgical functions, and the crowds that flock to Mass and Benediction, ensure that the Oratory is saved from becoming another museum in a street of museums.
For a clue as to how we can most fittingly mark this anniversary, however, we should look back to the day of Fr Faber’s funeral. Among all the memorials – literary and architectural – that have been crafted to honour the memory of Father Faber’s life and work, surely the most precious and telling tribute of all remains the great number of the poor Catholics who converged on the church from all over London on 30th September, 1863, many of whom could not enter the building because it was so full.
The original ‘brief’ given to the Birmingham and London Oratories, issued by Bl. Pope Pius IX, had been to evangelise primarily the “educated classes” of their respective cities. The establishment of the Oratory near the Strand, however, coincided with a vast influx of destitute Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, which meant that the London Oratorians immediately found themselves immersed in corporal works of mercy among the capital’s most disadvantaged inhabitants.
Last Good Shepherd Sunday Pope Francis preached that a good priest is one who takes on the smell of his sheep. Father Faber took on their fleas. The church and house in King William Street became infested with insects that teemed over cassocks, beds and altar linens. The itching was so unbearable that Fr Faber could not sleep, but he mustered enough energy to start the ‘Company of St Patrick’, which enlisted laity to visit the slums and to assist the Fathers in ministering to the spiritual, physical and social needs of Catholics who were found there.
With the move to Brompton, it might be imagined that Fr Faber was finally free to devote himself, undistracted by vermin, to the care of his “poor Belgravians”. But the poor followed him. An account of 1858 describes them making pilgrimages across London to be elevated and transported by the “sweet strains of heavenly music” and “all that is grand and solemn and sublime in the ceremonies” here at the Oratory. The Oratory Fathers opened ‘ragged schools’, and the work in the slums continued. They realised that what is now called ‘social outreach’ was not just an unavoidable adjunct but an essential ingredient to their apostolate as sons of St Philip Neri.
Perhaps the most appropriate tribute the London Oratory can pay to Fr Faber’s memory, then, will be for us to re-examine what we do for the needy in this city. What we do actually provide is largely untrumpeted. The Oratory has a committed St Vincent de Paul Society, which assists at some of the capital’s soup kitchens, as well as visiting the housebound and bringing immobile parishioners to Mass. Every day, significant numbers of the homeless arrive at the door to receive sandwiches produced in the kitchen of Oratory House. And a high percentage of the Fathers’ ‘on duty’ hours in the parlours is spent talking to Fr Faber’s dispossessed and destitute.
There is, however, much more that could be done. Listening to parishioners it becomes clear that there are untapped resources in our congregation – rich seams of skill and expertise, and a very serious desire to honour Christ in the poor and needy. Recently we have been in consultation with the Archdiocese of Westminster, and with local churches and charities, to find out what sort of contributions we can make that will be most beneficial to the needs of the time and the place in which God is asking us to build His Kingdom. We are currently producing a questionnaire to ascertain the numbers and profiles of parishioners who would like to participate. Watch this space, and pray that God will guide us to seek His Glory in all things.
Meanwhile, please join us at the Mass of thanksgiving on 26th September.