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

The unfairly maligned founder of the London Oratory died 150 years ago

By on Thursday, 26 September 2013

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

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

  • Clare

    Fr Frederick William Faber, surely?

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Father Faber’s book SPIRITUAL CONFERENCES contains two of my absolute favorite expressions of Catholic truth by any writer of any time: ON KINDNESS which is enough sustenance in itself to make a Catholic heart fit for heaven and the terrifying masterpiece SELF-DECEIT which is the utterly naked human creature Father Faber knew and loved from his own self examination and years in the confessional.

  • Patrick J. Gray

    A great Father of the Oratory in the days when the Church shone in triumph and splendour. I do enjoy the ‘flea’ anecdote. His foreword to his excellent translation of ‘True Devotion’ is an impeccable summary of Marian devotion. God bless him.

  • Fr Richard Duncan CO

    Its not just Faber that Meriol Trevor maligns, but Newman too. Writing in the heady climate of the 1960s, her understanding of both men, and of the Oratory too, is fatally distorted by the hermeneutic of rupture. Newman is seen as the prototype of the “post-conciliar” Catholic who is in favour of progress and development and Faber as the prototype of the “ultramontane” Catholic who is opposed to any kind of change whatsoever. In fact, Newman was famously opposed to “liberalism in religion” and, as Fr Julian’s article points out, Faber’s “pastoral plan” anticipated that of Pope Francis by some 150 years or so. We do no service to Newman or Faber by looking at them in this way, or by painting the conflict between them in primary colours.

    Faber’s beatification would be a wonderful thing. Perhaps it would teach us all – as in fact Newman’s beatification taught us – that men become saints precisely through their difficulties of character and temperament, and not in spite of them.

  • Patrick J. Gray

    Thank you, Father. ‘Tis well worth pointing out that Pius X wrote a
    letter to a certain Irish bishop – I want to say O’Dwyer of Limerick –
    forcefully stating the orthodoxy of Cardinal Newman.

  • Simon James Perry

    It would be a wonderful thing if he is indeed a Saint. I’m far from convinced however that men (or even women for that matter) become saints precisely through their difficulties of character and temperament. Perhaps some if not many of our difficulties of character and temperament are to do with personal sin and therefore impede our path to salvation. Perhaps it is in struggling against our problems in character and temperament that we become saints

  • Simon James Perry

    Triumph and Splendour? Some might say days of retreat and regression.

  • Apostolic

    At the risk of seeming pedantic: “…the author WHOM John XXIII read before bedtime” – surely?

  • Patrick J. Gray

    In what sense? The English Church flourished from the restoration of the Hierarchy until the 1950s. My knowledge of the figures is ropey to say the least, but I can say in truth there was a ‘second spring’ – look at the eminent converts, for example Cardinals Manning and Newman, Evelyn Waugh, Hugh Ross Williamson, Sir Arnold Lunn, Monsignor Ronald Knox, Monsignor R.H. Benson (my avatar, for no other reason than a fair personal resemblance), many of whom would prove staunch defenders of the true Mass and the true Faith in the traditionalist movement.

  • NatOns

    True, SJP, it is the divine favour in their witness to Christ that ‘makes’ them Saints and prompts the Church to raise their memory to the altar .. i.e. listing their names as worthy of memorial, praise and imitation in Christ aka canonisation.

    ‘Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ Phil 4 : 8.

    Clearly we are not all equally so worthy, yet we can all share in the honour afforded to them by God and thus from man – as they share also in our sufferings.

  • NatOns

    Why are English Catholics so unshakeably reluctant to share these little works of grace? This is especially true of presentations via audio book – yes, yes, I know you all knew that was coming from me, but hey! it is true.

  • NatOns

    Some might, but unjustly – as with the truly mistaken Meriol Trevor (whose children’s books were marvellous, if now just as dated as her assessment of ‘modern’ and retrogressive Victorians; she did some insightful novels on the post-Roman world with an eye on the then contemporary post-WW II world).

  • Simon James Perry

    I’m thinking of the Church as a whole, not specifically England. I’m thinking Pius IX and his seemingly reactionary ways, Ultramontanism, Silly triumphalism in certain quarters etc.

  • Matthew Wright

    Wilfrid was his name in Religion Clare, but it is the same man

  • Matthew Wright

    No such thing as the True Mass, (Arthur Crumly). Simon take care

  • Matthew Wright

    Im ringing Adian now hell love this. Got a job?

  • Simon James Perry

    Ah, Uncle Arthur, R.I.P. Hope you well Matthew.

  • anon

    Soutanes, Saturns and rosary beads, may they be legally worn on the streets in England?
    Accompanied by the sound of church bells- I would think it a glimpse of heaven.

  • Rhoslyn Thomas

    Wonderful, thank you.