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.”
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