Saturday 28 January 2017

Parish Priest's Report 2016

Here is the Parish Priest's Report for 2016, given at the Parish Annual General Meeting this morning:

Parish Priest’s Report 2016

Parish Statistics:

2016 has certainly been a remarkable year of political upheaval. I’m pleased to say that on the whole, our parish life has been more placid, and the daily round of Masses and sacraments has continued as always. We have however had a record number of confessions this past year. Whether this is a fruit of the Year of Mercy, a result of uncertainty about the world’s future, or simply the result of the Fathers’ constant presence in the confessional and encouragement of our parishioners to avail themselves of this sacrament, I do not know. Hearing confessions is one of the distinctive charisms of the Oratory, and a way in which we can be of service to the wider Church. Having several priests in a community makes it possible for us to be in the confessional before and during Mass. I’m sure that when those in church see the often long queues day by day for the Sacrament of Penance, it encourages them to go too, especially those who have perhaps been away from Confession for some time. Sometimes I hear people (including priests!) say that the practice of confession is dead for modern Catholics. Our experience here proves that the opposite is true. There is a great yearning for the pardon and peace that can only be realized in this way, and the false placebo of ‘General Absolution’ can never be of help to anyone. Nobody can live a serious Christian life without going regularly to confession, and we should be thankful that the Year of Mercy has highlighted this. One Saturday in Lent other priests came to help and we had confessions all through the day as part of ’24 Hours for the Lord’.

The Door of Mercy at the back of the church was opened on Gaudete Sunday 2015 by Bishop William Kenney, and also closed by him on the Vigil of Christ the King 2016, when His Lordship came to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation. In between those times, there were many individuals and groups who made pilgrimages to gain the Holy Year indulgence in our church, and who passed through the Door with that intention. They included the children from our own primary school, the staff and governors from St Joseph’s Primary School, the Union of Catholic Mothers from Rugby, seminarians from St Mary’s College, Oscott, the Filippino community of London, the parishioners of the Sacred Heart, Blackbird Leys, the Oxford University Newman Society, the girls of the Rose Round, and many others.

As well as the Holy Door itself, beautifully decorated by Mrs Freddie Quartley, we also emphasized our Saturday morning devotions to Our Lady of Oxford, Mother of Mercy, during the Year of Mercy and incorporated a procession to Our Lady’s shrine, passing through the Holy Door at the end of Mass on a Saturday morning. This proved extremely popular, as did the moving of the Feast of Our Lady of Oxford to a Sunday, which is I hope something that will happen again. There were also of course the usual devotions on Divine Mercy Sunday, which took on a special significance this year.

Although we were ourselves a place of pilgrimage, we also had our own Holy Year journeys. In May a group of pilgrims were brave enough to be driven all the way to Walsingham by Fr Daniel, where we had a highly prayerful and enjoyable few days, including passing through the Holy Door. For me it was a great privilege to celebrate Mass in the Slipper Chapel each day, and very encouraging to see all the developments that the new Rector of the Shrine, Monsignor John Armitage has embarked upon. When there was a national second collection for Walsingham in September, we felt that this was a project which it was truly worthwhile to support. We also enjoyed, while staying in Norfolk, a trip to the home of Her Majesty The Queen at Sandringham, and on the way home a stop at the Pontifical Shrine of Our Lady in King’s Lynn, with its replica Holy House.

Pilgrims to Lourdes passed through the Holy Door (at St Michael’s gate of the Domain. Our trip there in May coincided with the visits of the dioceses of Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Plymouth, so it did seem as though Lourdes had become English for that week.

In June we had a parish trip to Westminster Abbey, where we were graciously allowed to celebrate Mass at St Edward’s tomb. It is the only mediaeval saint’s shrine to have been left intact. After a tour of the Abbey, we went to Westminster Cathedral and passed through its Holy Door; another one decorated by Freddie Quartley.

The Brothers of the Oratory went with Fr Jerome for a retreat at Belmont Abbey and took part in the celebrations for the feast of the martyr St john Kemble at Welsh Newton. Closer to home, Fr Jerome led two popular tours of Catholic Oxford

The 1st St Philip Scouts of Europe went again on camp to Farnborough Abbey in Hampshire with Br Oliver, where they fended for themselves in the woods, and joined the Knights of Malta for a Pontifical Mass, at which the scouts carried the Abbot’s mitre and crosier. They were also on parade for Remembrance Sunday and dipped their colours for the Elevation during the Solemn Requiem.

To return to those initial statistics: there were nine funerals in our church this past year, for Sir Brian Tovey, Kitty McAleer, Jean Taylor, Elizabeth Edmondson, John Ashton, Margaret Sullivan, Vincent Donohue, Sister Maruerite-Andrée Kuhn-Regnier and Joseph Dillon. May they rest in peace.

Sir Brian Tovey K.C.M.G. was a former head of G.C.H.Q., as well as having a sideline in art history, which, according to one of his obituaries, helped him to get along with his French intelligence counterpart. In retirement, Sir Brian began to write a biography of Filippo Balduccini, the seventeenth-century Florentine art collector and historian. Sir Brian’s study of Balduccini brought him and his wife Mary into the Church in 1995, before they later moved into our parish.

Sister Marguerite-Andrée had been an enclosed Dominican nun of Carisbrooke, and spent some time at that house’s foundation in Headington. When eventually Carisbrooke closed, Sister Marguerite continued her vocation as a consecrated virgin living in the world, and before returning to Oxford had done a great deal of work with monastic archives. She lived at Wyndham House in her last years, was a great witness of prayer, and also a member of the Wednesday Morning Group and a well-known figure in the parish.

Elizabeth Edmondson was the author of a number of books, especially of historical fiction and mystery novels. She was due to write the script for a second ‘Murder Mystery evening’ after our previous successful attempt. Sadly when Elizabeth fell ill this had to be postponed, and then it was a very short time later that she died, leaving a son and daughter.

In lieu of a murder, we had a Tombola evening in April, which was much enjoyed by all. The Queen’s ninetieth birthday also afforded an opportunity to celebrate with a ‘Street Party’ in June. Characteristic British weather meant that this had to be largely indoors, and the cardboard cut-out of Her Majesty showed considerably less resilience than our actual Sovereign as it wilted in the rain, but there was much fun, and games, and even face-painting.

Last year I promised that we would get CCTV to improve our security and that the yard outside the Parish Centre would be made to look less disgraceful. I am pleased to say that both of these have happened. The CCTV and new alarms have been installed, and commended by the Thames Valley Police, who were able to apprehend a villain because of the cameras. The tarmac in the yard was laid, and the workmen departed minutes before a bride arrived for a crowded wedding. Walter Hooper has given a bench outside this room in memory of Phyllis Horan, and other pots and plants are on their way, through the green fingers of Br Benedict and the generosity of parishioners.

In January we hosted sung Compline and Benediction for Christian Unity week, and the Vicar of St Giles’, Canon Andrew Bunch preached. In February, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan came to preach at Compline and Benediction. The story of his life, growing up under Communist repression, is extremely moving, as is his deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and his insistence on the greatest reverence being shown to the presence of Our Lord in this great Mystery.

The usual round of events included the traditional Benediction in the Crib for the Epiphany, complete with a little girl dressed up as a star, Mass for the Sick near the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, a parish pancake party, the Mass of Inscription for sacramental candidates, the parish Marriage Preparation Day (and I should point out that in addition to the marriages taking place in our church, the Fathers are responsible for preparing many couples who marry elsewhere), novenas for St Philip and the Immaculate Conception, May Devotions, the May Procession, the Newman Night Walk, the Forty Hours’ Devotion, the Rorate Mass, and the unchanging rhythm of Masses and devotions throughout the year.

Many of these events are greatly improved by the work of Mark Gardner, the Oratory cook. This year, after eleven years of devoted service, he went to seek pastures new. After nine months away, he is now back again, about which I think not only the Fathers but also the parishioners are delighted. It only goes to show that change never works!

The Lent Musical Oratory and the Carol Service in December were both well-attended, as was the concert of Monteverdi’s Vespers in May. Music is certainly one of the things that attracts people to the Oratory, and we continue to strive to keep the Church’s musical tradition alive. The choir at the 9.30am Mass on Sunday now has an extensive repertoire of liturgical music.

Fr Julian Large, Provost of the London Oratory, came to preach on St Philip’s day and gave an excellent sermon about St Philip and friendship. We also greatly enjoyed the words of Fr Gerard Skinner, Parish Priest of St Francis, Notting Hill, on St Aloysius’ Day, and the sermon of Fr Paul Chavasse of the Birmingham Oratory for the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. Fr Paul gave an evocative verbal tour of the Cardinal’s room. Fr Rupert Allen, Chaplain to Bristol University was extremely engaging on Our Lady’s Birthday and Fr Aldo Tapparo of Charlbury preached eloquently for the Immaculate Conception. On Saturday mornings we have had talks on Exodus and Leviticus, and on the People of the Gospel.

The Corpus Christi Procession in 2016 was led by Bishop Robert Byrne, who has been a regular visitor on many other occasions too. The numbers at the procession continue to grow, and I hope that we might find some way to close some streets to make our progress a little smoother in the future.

Young Oratory had an extremely raucous punting trip in August, during which Fr Daniel and his boat came into contact with the bottom of the Cherwell. Some less-young people asked if they could be taken punting too, and so a much more elegant and sedate ‘Middle-aged punting trip’ took place later in that month and looks set to become an annual tradition.

2016 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Our church has a memorial to those parishioners who gave their lives in the Great War, and I was also interested to find out more about 2nd Lieutenant Richard Walker, in whose memory the silver monstrance that we most often use throughout the year was given. A little research revealed that he was an old boy of Downside, a graduate of Christ Church. A distinguished boxer, Richard Walker obtained a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers and was killed in action on 9th August 1916. He is listed on the memorial at Thiepval, but his body was never found. The monstrance is an abiding memorial to a life cut short at the age of 33.

Our Lent Project was for the Oxford Companions of the Order of Malta, a student group who do sterling work for the poor and marginalized in our city. They have organized two lunches for the homeless in our Parish Centre in 2016, the Christmas lunch including some excellent carol-singing; there is the weekly Shower Project, soup runs, visits to housebound parishioners and care homes, and an expanding range of activities. The Companions have a small core of key people, and then a very large pool of students who volunteer for larger or small amounts of time. They are a splendid example of the mission of the Order of Malta to defend the Faith and to serve the poor. Nobody exemplifies this mission better than Fra’ Matthew Festing, the outgoing Prince and Grand Master of the Order, who is a friend of our community and has visited us here several times. His integrity and judgement should be admired and trusted.

We had a bumper collection of clothes to send to Syrian refugees, and the Society of St Vincent de Paul organized an appeal for presents for refugee children at Christmas. There was a great response of over 250 shoe boxes filled with gifts.

The community in York has continued to grow and flourish. Br Adam and Br Henry are familiar to parishioners here, since they are in Oxford during term time while they pursue their studies at Blackfriars. In March Fr Stephen Brown, formerly a priest of the Leeds diocese, and Br David Chadwick were clothed in the habit, so there are now five members of the house in York. They are now looking after two parishes: St Wilfrid’s and St Joseph’s. As the house in York shows its stability over time it will gradually move towards independence.

You will be aware that the Bishop of Portsmouth has also invited an Oratorian foundation at the Sacred Heart in Bournemouth, and that Fr Dominic has agreed to be part of this along with two priests from the Archdiocese of Southwark: Fr Peter Edwards and Fr David Hutton. Unfortunately this has had to be postponed because Fr David is gravely ill, and so no starting date can be given at the moment. We made the decision earlier this month to clothe Fr David in the habit so that he will be able to die as a Son of St Philip. He is offering his sufferings for the Bournemouth Oratory-to-be. Please keep him and this venture in your prayers.

Our own community gained a new novice in April in the shape of Br Benedict Manning, who has begun his studies at Blackfriars last term. Fr Nicholas has been popping off to Belgium to continue his studies of Canon Law at the University of Leuven. He assures us that this is very hard work. Fr Jerome has been undergoing medical treatment in the last few weeks, and is doing well: please pray for him and all the Fathers and Brothers. We depend on your prayers and support, just as we know that you trust in ours.

One of the big events in the Church as a whole this year was the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one of the best-known figures of the twentieth century. Mother Teresa visited Oxford in 1993, even talking to some of the children at St Aloysius’ School through the fence. So it was fitting that our library should host an exhibition about Mother’s life for a fortnight in April. Visitors came from far and wide: even the Apostolic Nuncio, who gave an impromptu talk to a school class that was visiting at the same time. There were compelling images and texts from Mother Teresa’s life, some artefacts that she used, including her sari, which was brought over specially from Rome, and the opportunity to spend time in prayer. Those who came were deeply moved, and I hope encouraged by the life and witness of this contemporary saint.

St Aloysius’ School has had an excellent year, not least because Ofsted came and declared the school to be good in every area. This is a great tribute to the hard work of Tom Walker and all the staff. More important than that, I would say, is the fine witness that the children give when they come to church for Mass on feast days. Their participation and the quality of their singing has come on tremendously, and they are able to join in enthusiastically with a varied selection of Catholic hymns and chants, including the School Hymn, Salveto centies. The big new venture for this year has been the opening of the new nursery class at the beginning of this term, which is full; and I can testify from my visit last week has a lively and happy atmosphere. Mrs Trevelyan awarded me a gold star for sitting nicely and being good. I told the children that the Fathers wouldn’t believe that I had earned it fairly, and I was right. I was touched to hear one boy tell his fellows, “Fr Daniel lives with Jesus”. He actually summed up beautifully what the Oratorian vocation is meant to be.

Our new Young Adults Group, run by Br Benedict and Br Oliver, has attracted large and enthusiastic crowds in its first few months. Those of us who are neither young nor adults were impressed to see their prayerfulness during the Forty Hours. This is an encouraging sign for the future. Fr Joseph has been animating both the Women’s Oratory and the Mother and Toddler Group, both of which show much vitality.

There are plenty of things going on which are largely unseen. As usual, but with real gratitude, I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the church cleaners, the social club committee, the money-counters, the lodge porters, the sacristy laundresses, and anyone else who helps to keep this whole show on the road.

2017 will see the ordination of Br Oliver to the diaconate, trips to Holywell, Rome and Fatima, the centenary of the Fatima apparitions, our Lent Project, Mary’s Meals (about which more later), Fr Richard’s Silver Jubilee of priesthood, lots of the same things as last year, and no doubt a host of things that we cannot now predict. May the intercession of Our Lady of Oxford, our Holy Father St Philip, Blessed John Henry Newman, St Aloysius and all the saints preserve us in God’s grace and bring all our works to prosper for His glory.

Fr Daniel Seward, Cong. Orat.

Parish Priest