9 October 2012

Blessed John Henry Newman

Back from a wonderful trip; to the Shrine of Blessed John Henry, in Birmingham. You might think that just being in such a place on such a day as his Solemnity would be wonderful enough; but there is more to it than that. Just before First Vespers of the Solemnity, I was privileged to be invited to witness the reception of the Habit of S Philip by a former pupil of mine, Mr Andrew Wagstaff. And the next morning, the feast itself, I offered the Holy sacrifice.

Andrew and I go back quite some time. He was one of the very ablest of my theological students at Lancing; then he shone equally in the Theological Faculty in Oxford. He managed the serving at Pusey House in Oxford (I had the title of Senior Research Fellow there while I was priest in charge of S Thomas's); then he became a barrister. Now ... well, you see where it has all led. But I had better come clean about something else: a month ago I spent a week in the Birmingham Oratory, lending a very inadequate hand with the clerical work of the House. And what a welcoming, vibrant place it is; both in terms of the Fathers and Brothers, and of the congregation. (Ah, and Pushkin the Cat as well!) Youth and Enthusiasm mark both! There was a good congregation at the (Extraordinary Form) High Mass on the Sunday, at which I celebrated and preached. During some of the other Sunday Masses, a couple of which were packed out, I occupied a confessional; one of those nice Baroque confessionals, in which there is a sliding panel each side and as the penitent to your left departs, you slide the shutter back, heave over onto the right buttock, and hear the confession that side, thus rocking back and forth non-stop. The queues lasted until after the end of Mass.

Incidentally, you can find on the internet lovely pictures of the Ordination and First Mass of Fr Martin Stamnestroe in Oslo ... he is another former Anglican, another graduate of Pusey House. I remember happy days sitting in his study chatting and and admiring his superb collection of liturgical books. And there is the news of the profession of a new novice in the now formally erected Redemptorist community on Papa Stronsay, very dear friends of mine. No lack of signs of growth, at least as things seem from my viewpoint in the Church; and a fair bit of that growth seems to happen among the very able. Oh, and the Ordinariate's first two new home-grown seminarians are getting under way. We really do seem to be moving on from the arid years. Vivat Papa.

But back to the Birmingham Oratory. Fr Anton, the Parish Priest, very kindly made me free of 'the Cardinal's' study (with adjacent chapel). Little discoveries can be as satisfactory as large ones; we all know that on Monday December 3, Newman left Oxford for the foreign travels which led him to Sicily, serious illness, and the writing of Lead kindly light. The day before, he preached a University Sermon which could be regarded as the start of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England. But what was he doing on the preceding Saturday? I can now reveal the Truth. He was shopping ... for books. Devout tomes? Deary me, No. He bought a pocket copy of Thucydides; and one of Pindar. Isn't it a lovely mental picture; the slender, donnish, very English figure, sweat pouring down his face as he plodded round the bumps near Syracuse and traced (Thucydides in hand) the footprints of the ill-fated Athenian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War; then sitting in a cafe (I think I detected slight wine marks on some pages) and reading Pindar's mannered encomia upon the equestrian victories of Sicilian rulers in the Games.

Newman once said, I think, that he could never be a saint; because he loved literature too much. But Classicists, evidently, can become saints!

How very fortunate the inhabitants of Birmingham (and its surrounding areas) are, to have such a wonderful shrine in their midst; to be able to go to Mass in such a flourishing and well-run church. And one with such a large car-park behind it!