Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A visit to the Brompton Oratory on Remembrance Day

An impressive facade
Recently, I had some more international travel, where I ended up with a long layover in London on a Sunday (thanks to Virgin Atlantic. Feel free to read my trip reports on the VS experience). I decided to take advantage of this and visit the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, better known as the Brompton Oratory. Once the biggest Catholic Church in London, that distinction passed to the Westminster Cathedral in 1903. I'm a bit of a Newmaniac, and of course, the name of this community comes up regularly in certain Catholic circles, so it was a no-brainer as to how I'd spend this layover in the British capital. (Newman, actually, wasn't a part of this community; he was with the Birmingham Oratory, which I'd visited on a Newman pilgrimage during a seminary break, back in 2012). The day before my travel, I called the number for the Oratory and was connected to the head sacristan, who said they would be very glad to have me there, and of course I could offer a Mass on the Lord's Day!


Read that bit about Confessions. Yeah! 
After a shower and breakfast at Delta's Arrival Lounge at Terminal 3, I took the Tube to South Kensington. A short walk (past the impressive facade of the Victoria & Albert Museum), and one is in front of the quite impressive facade of the Oratory itself. When I arrived, the 12:30 pm Mass had just started. I entered the bookstore to the left of the main doors, and chatted with the friendly volunteer staffing it. It turns out this was the parish lending library, with a small gift store. She directed me to the sacristy, and I walked to the front of the church, down a side aisle, past banks and banks of flickering candles in front of dimly lit side altars. This is what a Catholic Church should feel like! The nave was fairly full, the crowd scattered all around. At the altar, the priest had started the Offertory, facing East (praise God!).

St. Wilfrid's Chapel, where I offered Mass.
The altar cards are stunning!
 In the sacristy I was greeted by the head sacristan (and others), and got vested and prepared for Mass. The vestments were clearly old, and simple, but beautiful. I was led through the ambulatory (which seems to serve, unsurprisingly, as a storage area as well), to the other side of the church, to St. Wilfrid's chapel, where Fr. William Faber (the author of "Faith of Our Fathers") is buried! I offered the Holy Sacrifice, and spent some while in quiet thanksgiving afterwards, before returning to the sacristy. The sacristans kindly invited me to attend Solemn Vespers at 3:30 pm., about 75 minutes away. I went into the nave (Mass was long over) to admire the beauty of the church, and pray, and then headed outside, grabbing lunch at an Italian café right across the street.

At 3:15 pm, I was back in the sacristy, and was introduced to several of the Oratorian priests (there are nine in residence at this Oratory!), including the Provost, and two of their novices. They kindly provided me with a book to chant Vespers (it was in the Extraordinary Form), as well as a fairly well fitting cassock and cotta, and a biretta. The clergy and several young men (members of the Brothers of the Little Oratory) lined up and processed in. Vespers was simply heavenly -- the chant from the schola, beautiful and well paced, and the polyphonic pieces simply exquisite! Oh what a balm for the soul this was! I even got to contribute: the novices (an Argentinian and an Italian), helped the clergy lead the incipits for the chant (the first bar or measure of the psalm). I had no idea beforehand that this duty would fall also upon my unsuspecting shoulder. At the beginning of the third psalm (if I recall correctly), they approached me. The organ sounded the notes of the incipits, and one of them softly chanted it. I don't know if they saw my face, but my eyes were as wide as saucers, and I wouldn't be surprised if I broke a sweat. Oh dear! Gratia Dei, I managed the incipit passably. Unfortunately, I missed the asterisk on the page, which marked the end of the incipit, and sallied forth into the rest of the psalm, rapidly floundering in the neumes. Mercifully, the organ, and the schola quickly picked up from the incipit and drowned out my folly.

Italian Renaissance glory! 
The altar of St. Philip Neri, with an effigy of his.
Remembrance Day prayers.
After Vespers, the clergy processed to the stunningly beautiful Lady Altar, where prayers were said for Remembrance Day, and the Salve chanted, after which, the procession returned to the sacristy. It was truly a heavenly experience! I thanked the Fathers and the sacristan for their kind hospitality (and they all invited me back for a longer stay), and headed out into the dusk.

The beautiful Lady Altar

Sacred Heart altar. Blazing candles! What every church needs! 
The sacristy.
Yours truly in some glorious vestments.
Beautiful, old, chasuble. 
The next stop was to have a look at Westminster Palace and Big Ben, a short hop away on the Tube. There were tons of tourists milling about on Westminster bridge. The clocktower was lit up with a poppy flower to commemorate Remembrance Day. After a short walk, I took the Tube back to the airport.

Westminster Palace
Big Ben illuminated with the Poppies of Flanders Field
for Remembrance Day 
Poster spotted in a Tube station
It actually has a phone! (I didn't test it)
Good advice! 

A nice article from Adoremus (from 1998) on the liturgy at the Oratory as a model for parishes.

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