Monday 29 January 2018

Parish Priest's Report 2017

Here is the Parish Priest's report for 2017, as given at the Parish Annual General Meeting last Saturday:

Parish Priest’s Report 2017

Parish Statistics 2017:

Baptisms: 50 (1 adult)

Receptions of Converts: 4

First Holy Communions: 43

Confirmations: 42

Marriages: 24

Funerals: 5

Average Mass Attendance: 856 (Sundays in October)

Confessions heard in our Church: 8,708

I might start by passing a few comments about these statistics. Firstly, only five funerals (two of which were celebrated by visiting priests) is a record low, and this is the one number that we want to be low! The Fathers claim no credit for the longevity of our parishioners, and nor can we attribute it to the healthiness of our city, given that it is notoriously low-lying, damp, and polluted I think that it is rather a simple matter of demographics. Many priests elsewhere have funerals nearly every week; and we are fortunate too that we have comparatively few sick communions in the parish: I estimate no more than a dozen at the present moment. That said, it is always worth reminding people that they should leave clear instructions about their own Requiems, since death will come to us all in the end. In particular, please do specify strictly that there should be no eulogy, and that your funeral should be an act of prayer for your soul rather than a celebration of your life. Similarly, we are not always told when a parishioner is sick, or has become housebound, or needs a visit – so please do tell us. It is what all the priests are here for!

I hope that the remainder of the statistics will convince you that the Fathers have not been idle. The large number of confessions heard in our church is not an accident, but because people know that day in, day out, they will find a priest in the box before every Mass – and one would like to think too that they experience gentleness and encouragement in receiving the Sacrament of Penance here.

Of course these numbers only scratch the surface of what happens here. We record the attendance at Sunday Masses during October – a month always blighted now by the half-marathon that causes huge disruption throughout the city – but we don’t count how many come to weekday Masses; I would say over one hundred on every day of the year. Another unknown is the number who come in to pray outside of Mass times, and, further to previous Parish Priest’s reports, I would say that the installation of CCTV in our church has made it safer, more welcoming, and has reduced the number of difficult incidents.

Two sets of confirmations have taken place this year, on two consecutive weeks, by Bishop William Kenney in the Ordinary Form, and by Bishop Robert Byrne in the Extraordinary Form. There was one programme of preparation for both forms, which is precisely the sort of thing that Pope Benedict XVI desired when he promulgated Summorum Pontificum ten years ago.

Episcopal visits to our church have been almost non-stop this year. Bishop Kenney also came to celebrate his thirtieth anniversary as a bishop, and to carry out the canonical visitation of the parish on behalf of the Archbishop. In fact he found the Archbishop was here himself when he arrived, His Grace having celebrated and preached at our feast for the Immaculate Conception the night before. Bishop William came to visit the sick with me, passed round his episcopal ring at a first communion class, saw the Scouts in action, heard a Saturday morning talk, celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and saw the work of the Companions of the Order of Malta at their Saturday Shower Project. Exactly as happened last time the Bishop came on visitation, the weather turned cold, snow fell and the roads froze. In fact, I was impressed at how many people did make it to Mass, and we carried on as normal, albeit with some very lively snowball fights taking place between our parishioners and the Fathers and Brothers. The Oratorians managed to construct quite a creditable igloo in the Parks that afternoon and it is also greatly to the credit of Mr Walker and all the staff at St Aloysius’ School that our school was one of the few in Oxford to open on the Monday, thus enabling the Governors to interview for a new Deputy Head as planned.

Going back to the influx of bishops: on 9th February, we were delighted to welcome His Beatitude the Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, who was in Oxford to speak at the Union, and who celebrated a votive Mass in our church for persecuted Christians. His Beatitude urged us to show support for the Church in Jerusalem, which is, as it always has been, the Church of Calvary. The Patriarch’s visit was a timely reminder that we must always be conscious of the mission of the Universal Church.

Bishop Robert was here on 25th March, the feast of the Annunciation, for the happy occasion of Br Oliver’s ordination to the diaconate. This is the first ordination he has carried out here, and he will be back on 29th June this year in order to ordain Br Oliver to the priesthood.

Br Benedict also advanced along the way to Holy Orders this year. On 7th October he was made a lector, the first of two ministries before ordination. Unfortunately he was wearing a sling at the time as a result of slipping over in our kitchen, having cooked lunch for the community. I am pleased to say that his arm has now recovered.

Br Adam from the York-Oratory-in-formation is pursuing the rest of his studies via the School of the Annunciation at Buckfast Abbey. This enables him to be in York during term time to assist Fr Richard and Fr Stephen, and also for Br David to join Br Henry here to pursue his studies at Blackfriars. Br Adam became a “triennial” member of the community in July, which means that the house in York is making good progress along the path to independence. Despite Br Adam having left the novitiate, Fr Nicholas still has his hands full with the remaining novices, as well as his Canon Law studies, being M.C. and Minister, that is, in charge of domestic arrangements.

The person within the Oratorian Confederation responsible for the formation of new houses is the Procurator General. However, Fr Mario Aviles of the Pharr Oratory in Texas, has last December been nominated by the Holy Father as auxiliary bishop of Brownsville in the same state. He is to be consecrated next month, and Bishop Robert plans to be there. The increase in Oratorian bishops is a novel, and somewhat bewildering, phenomenon for us!

As well as brothers from York living with us during term time, we also have two students from the Brisbane-Oratory-in-formation. Br Shawn Murphy arrived last January and then was promptly shipped back home again because of visa complications. At the start of the Michaelmas term he returned with reinforcements, in the shape of Br Tyson King, and this time they have managed to stay. Both brothers have previously done their philosophy at the Toronto Oratory, and so they are here for the next stage of their training. They have both made a good start in settling into the life of the Oxford Oratory, both in the house and in the parish. On weekdays, we are also joined by Br Stanislaus of Farnborough Abbey, so our refectory is rather full at times. Br Stanislaus recently came to our school to explain to our Year 4s what a monk is; one child having had it explained that monks can’t get married, asked, “Not even to a nun?”.

Last year in this report I asked you to pray for Fr David Hutton, who was gravely ill. Fr David was one of the priests from the Archdiocese of Southwark who wished to join the Bournemouth-Oratory-in-formation and, as I explained last year, when it became clear that he would not live long enough to see this project begin, we clothed him in the habit of St Philip. Fr David died on 1st March, Ash Wednesday last year but also St David’s Day, and so we can say that he is the first member of our house to die. Since Oratorians do not take vows, we have a saying that true sons of St Philip are known only on their deathbeds. We had a Solemn Requiem here for Fr David, and for the first time at the Fathers’ and Brothers’ Requiem in November we had one of our own Congregation for whom we could pray. Please continue to pray for the repose of Fr David’s soul, and for the perseverance in our vocation of all the Fathers and Brothers of the Oratory.

Our own Fr Dominic, together with Fr Peter Edwards, went to the Sacred Heart in Bournemouth in May. They have been joined by Br Andrew Wagstaff of the Birmingham Oratory and a novice has been clothed: Br Francisco Hintikka, whom some of you may remember as the sacristan at SS Gregory & Augustine here in Oxford. Much is still to be done in Bournemouth, especially to the house, so please keep that project in your prayers.

Last year I asked you to pray especially for Fr Jerome, who had been undergoing medical treatment. I am pleased to say that this has been successful, and that he is indeed in rude health. In September he went out on his bike on the Open Doors weekend, and cycled forty miles around different churches, raising considerable sponsorship for our own church and for the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust.

Fr Richard celebrated the silver jubilee of his priesthood in July. There were of course various junketings in York, but he returned here to the church where he was ordained on the day itself, 11th July, the feast of St Benedict, and said Mass before hosting a party in the Parish Centre. Fr Richard’s was the first Oratorian ordination in our church, and thank God we have had others since. There were a few there at the silver jubilee who were also here a quarter of a century ago, but it was also striking how much has changed and how much has happened during that time. Oxford is a place whose population is very transient, and I think that the value of a community which seeks to be stable and permanent is all the more important therefore.

In June, Fr Felix Selden, the Delegate of the Holy See to the Oratorian Confederation, came to conduct the apostolic Visitation of our community, which happens every six years. At the Congresso this coming September, Fr Felix, who is from the Vienna Oratory, will lay down the burden of his office after twelve years. We are extremely grateful to him for his friendship, his kindness and his tremendous hard work, sometimes in difficult circumstances. It is no joke having to visit nearly ninety houses throughout the world, with a new one having been established in 2017 in Cincinnati. Finally, while dealing with the Oratorian community, I should note that our own triennial elections were held in February, at which I was re-elected Provost.

Our Saturday morning talks have been well attended in 2017, especially during Lent, when we had a series on prayer as practised by different traditions within the Church, and so talks from a Jesuit, a Benedictine, a Norbertine, a Dominican, a Carmelite and an Oratorian. That sounds like the beginning of a story where they all walk into a bar. That didn’t happen, though, when the pilgrims on our parish trip to Holywell walked into what they thought was a bar, they discovered that it was actually someone’s house, and were met with amazement by the householder. That was one adventure we had on what was a very enjoyable and encouraging pilgrimage to North Wales. We stayed next to the shrine of St Winefride in the Guest House run by the Bridgettine Sisters in the “Lourdes of Wales”, which has been an uninterrupted site of pilgrimage for 1,300 years. We also went to St Asaph’s, St Beuno’s, Pantasaph and Shrewsbury.

Our younger parishioners have also been travelling. Twenty-three pilgrims from “Young Oratory” went to Rome in Easter week. For some of the young people it was their first time abroad, for many the first time in Italy and for most a first visit to the Eternal City. We had a tour of St Philip’s rooms, saw the great sights, including the four major basilicas, St Aloysius’ shrine and the catacombs of St Sebastian, where St Philip received the Holy Spirit on the eve of Pentecost 1544. Like St Philip and his disciples, we enjoyed a picnic on the way to St Sebastian, and we were able to pray in the spot of the catacombs where the Holy Spirit in the form of a ball of fire entered Philip’s heart. After a bit of fighting with Roman sacristans we were able to celebrate Mass at St Philip’s tomb, at Santa Maria Maggiore, St Paul’s Outside the Walls and in St Peter’s. This year there will be a similar trip to the less exotic location of Ampleforth Abbey. A new group has been started in the past four months, called Gaeta, for 15-17 year olds. Gaeta is the place where the young Philip Neri heard the call to leave his position in his uncle’s business and to go to live as a hermit in Rome.

Br Oliver and Br Benedict took our scouts to Farnborough Abbey in August for their annual summer camp. It was of course summer in the English sense of the word and rained relentlessly for ten days. Nevertheless, the boys remained in good spirits and were resourceful in the face of adversity, which is rather the point of such an enterprise.

Much better weather shone upon the members of the Wednesday Morning Group, who went to stay at the Bar Convent in York, the oldest functioning convent in Great Britain. We were warmly welcomed by the sisters, enjoyed their fascinating museum, and were given excellent tours of St Margaret Clitherow’s shrine, the Minster, St Wilfrid’s and the City of York by Br Henry.

Fr Joseph took the Women’s Oratory to Harvington Hall, where St Nicholas Owen, a carpenter born in our own parish, constructed the ingenious priests’ hiding-places, which may be seen there today. The women also sallied forth with Fr Joseph in December, when they visited Winchester and its Christmas market. The Women’s Oratory continues to be very well attended twice a month, and Fr Joseph has begun the new-look Men’s Oratory in 2017, which meets on the third Thursday of every month, and is clearly meeting a need among our male parishioners for prayer, teaching and fellowship.

13th May 2017 was the one-hundredth anniversary of Our Lady’s first appearance at Fatima, and so it was a highly appropriate day for our parish to join the diocesan pilgrimage to Walsingham, which was led this year by Bishop Robert. We were spiritually united with all those gathered in Fatima for the celebrations there, and the canonization of the two shepherd children, Francisco and Jacinta. This coming September we will join the revived Oratorian pilgrimage to Walsingham. Forty-four pilgrims from York and Oxford went to Fatima itself, and were there for the hundredth anniversary of the fifth apparition of Our Lady on 13th September. They heard Cardinal Piacenza preach a remarkable sermon about the message of Fatima for today, took part in the deeply moving liturgies and processions at the shrine, saw one of the bullets with which John Paul II was shot, in Our Lady’s crown, prayed at the tombs of SS Jacinta and Francisco, saw all of the places associated with the visionaries, and the fragment of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of all the evils which Our Lady warned against and helps us to overcome. Our pilgrimage included time in Lisbon, in Santiago de Compostela, at Bom Gesu in Braga, at Batalha, and of course the unforgettable Museum of Dried Fish in Nazaré. This September it is hoped that there will be another joint York and Oxford pilgrimage, to Rome, Cascia, Assisi and Loreto.

The same rain that fell on our scouts also poured upon our parish punting expedition in August, but we were undaunted by such trifles. Less dramatic rain fell when we invited all the religious of the city to a barbecue in July, but it was mild enough not to dampen the enjoyment of De la Salle brothers, Holy Child sisters, Dominican friars and sisters, Conventual Franciscans, Capuchin Franciscans, the Sisters of the Work, Carmelite friars and a Passionist bishop. (No Salesians, Benedictines or Jesuits were able to join us!) Such occasions remind us what a remarkable place Oxford is, and its lively Catholic life is nowhere better demonstrated than in our annual Corpus Christi procession. This year, by gracious permission of the City Council, we were able to employ a traffic management company to close the streets and ensure a smooth and orderly procession. It was a great improvement, and I hope will further strengthen the impact of this great act of witness and devotion.

St Aloysius’ School continues to prosper and many parishioners have remarked to me about the high quality of the singing and the engagement of the children when they come to Mass in our church. This is in large part a fruit of the work of Miss Isabel Errington. She is leaving the school at half-term, but I hope that we shan’t lose the musical and liturgical momentum she has created. A significant event in the coming year will be the retirement of Mrs Pauline Brookes, who has been Deputy Head at St Aloysius’ for the past thirteen years. Pauline is great fun, a dynamo of energy in her work with staff, parents and children, and a real role model of a Catholic teacher. She will be sorely missed in school, but she has made encouraging noises about involving herself in the Wednesday Morning Group, and I hope that we can tempt her down from Chipping Norton for other things here too. Meanwhile, the school is blessed to have been able to appoint a new Deputy for this coming autumn, and we look forward to welcoming Miss Hannah Duncan.

Our schoolchildren enthusiastically took part in the Backpack project for Mary’s Meals during Lent. Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary’s Meals, came to talk in the Parish Centre in March, and this was probably the most successful Lent Project the parish has ever had. The simplicity of Mary’s Meals’ aim: to provide a meal for children in school every day, and the story which Magnus was able to tell so eloquently greatly touched the hearts of many. The success of the Christmas shoeboxes was repeated at Christmas 2017, with great piles of boxes of gifts for child refugees being sent off.

There are many things which happen every year, or groups which carry on meeting week in, week out: the Mass for New Year’s Eve, the Epiphany Benediction in the Crib, the Pancake Party, the Mass for the Sick, the Passiontide Musical Oratory, Divine Mercy devotions, the Marriage Preparation Day, the Rorate Mass, May devotions and our May Procession, Our Lady of Oxford’s feast, the Newman Night Walk, the Forty Hours’ Devotion, the blessing of graves at Wolvercote Cemetery and the Carol Service are some annual events; and the Children’s Liturgy, the Mothers and Toddlers’ Group, Little Oratory for 7-11 year olds, the Young Adults’ Group and Fr Jerome’s Scripture Group are some activities that haven’t yet been mentioned. The Society of St Vincent de Paul, having worked for many years in our parish for the poor and marginalised, is currently in abeyance, but we are seeking new ways of reviving its work.

This last year saw an exhibition of the paintings of the Catholic artist Eularia Clarke, spread across St Giles’ Church, the Quaker Meeting House and our own Guild Room. Br Benedict has been holding a series of “Grown-up Catechism for Ordinary Adults”. Mgr John Armitage, the Rector of the Shrine of Walsingham, preached for St Philip’s Day; Fr Keith McMillan S.J. for St Aloysius’ Day and Fr Richard Biggerstaff for the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. We have had additional Musical Oratories during the Forty Hours and in Advent, on a less grandiose scale, which have been well received. The choir of Downside School sang for St Aloysius’ Day, which was most enjoyable – I hope for them too. The Parish Centre has hosted a number of parties and receptions – and our thanks to all those who work so hard to enable these, as well as to our dedicated band of counters, church-cleaners, lodge-keepers, altar servers, singers, readers, school governors, welcomers, laundresses, advisors and all those who give of themselves to the life of the parish in any capacity.

Shortly we will be seeing a bit of a revamp of our hospitality after the 9.30 and 11am Masses, in the shape of Café Neri, which will be launched soon. I hope that this will encourage all of us to think hard about how we can extend our welcome to those who visit our church, how we can bring the Good News of the Resurrection to the people of our city and county, which is ultimately the mission with which all of us have been entrusted. May the Lord continue, through the intercession of His Blessed Mother, our Holy Father St Philip, St Aloysius, Blessed John Henry Newman and all the saints, to bless our endeavours in 2018, and may He bring all our works to their fulfilment in eternal life.

Fr Daniel Seward, Cong. Orat., Parish Priest.