Newman’s choice of the Oratory of St Philip Neri (extract)
Having become a Catholic, and desirous of serving his new Church as a priest, Newman was confronted with the question of which form of priestly life would best suit his particular talents and those of the disciples who had grouped themselves around him during his years at Littlemore; for he wished at all costs to maintain intact this band of disciples. The issue was complicated by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was an international institution of which the English-speaking world was then but a tiny part. Hardly anyone in Rome spoke English, and England was, and was to remain until the early years of the 20th century, a ‘missionary country’ under the direct authority of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (‘Propaganda’). Newman was particularly sensitive to this ‘missionary’ situation: if he rejected the idea of becoming a simple diocesan priest, it was in part because he considered (quoting the views of Dominic Barberi who had received him into the Catholic Church) that such ‘priests were for keeping up a system’ but that ‘an order was the only thing for converting a country’ (LD xi. 30).
From the start, Newman’s interest in the Oratory went hand in hand with his deep attraction to the figure of St Philip Neri, founder of the first Oratory in Rome in 1575. Indeed, after his two ‘conversions’ of 1816 and 1845, his discovery of St Philip, whom he would adopt as his patron saint and model, was the third most important event in his spiritual life. It was Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, then Apostolic Administrator of the Central District and, as such, responsible for both Oxford and Birmingham, who first suggested to Newman the idea of the Oratory. (In 1847 Wiseman was transferred to the London district and, when the full Catholic hierarchy was re-established in 1850, was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. However he continued to act as patron and protector of the ‘converts’.) Wiseman also clearly spoke to Newman at some length about St Philip Neri: in the Preface to his first volume of Catholic sermons, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (1849), dedicated to Wiseman, Newman pointed out that this was his first book ‘as a Father of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri’ and spoke of his debt to Wiseman regarding St Philip, ‘of whom I had so often heard you speak before I left England [for Rome], and whose bright and beautiful character had won my devotion, even when I was a Protestant’ (Mix. v-vi).
In September 1846 Newman and one of his oldest companions from Littlemore, Ambrose St John, were sent by Wiseman to Rome in order to ‘complete’ their theological studies at the Roman College, the seminary run by Propaganda for the service of ‘missionary’ countries. Newman found the lectures so elementary, and so boring, that (according to St John) he often fell asleep during them (LD xi. 298). He spent much of his time, however, reflecting on his future, this reflection passing through several stages and embracing several hypotheses. He briefly thought of founding a ‘school of theology’ the aim of which would be the formation of ‘missionary’ priests for England (LD xi. 196); however, the novelty of certain of the ideas expressed in his Essay on Development, which had given rise to suspicions regarding his orthodoxy in Rome and elsewhere, caused him to abandon this idea (see chapter on Development). He then thought briefly of founding a new congregation to be called the ‘Congregation of the Most Holy Trinity’, placed under the patronage of the Virgin Mary and devoted to an intellectual and apologetic apostolate, and in June 1846 drew up a brief memorandum to this effect (NO 149-50). A third stage in his thinking involved the idea of joining one of the existing religious orders (cf. the Memorandum of 1878, NO 391). He briefly considered the Redemptorists and the Vincentians, but rejected them both for different reasons (the former too exclusively involved in ‘rural’ missions, the second too unintellectual) before looking more seriously at the Dominicans and the Jesuits. But his contacts with the Dominicans in Italy disappointed him (he learned that those of Florence were renowned as makers of perfumes!), he did not yet know of the renewal of the order in France by Lacordaire, and he concluded rather hastily that the Order of Preachers was ‘a great idea extinct’ (LD xi. 195). The Jesuits were the object of more lengthy consideration. Newman saw in them ‘a really hardworking, self-sacrificing body of men’ and respected them ‘exceedingly’, but found them to be far too ‘conservative’, desirous merely of maintaining the ‘traditions’ of their ‘fathers’ and displaying ‘a deep suspicion of change with a perfect incapacity to create anything positive for the wants of the times’ (LD xii. 103-4). He also feared the spirit of ‘submission’ which he saw in the Society, declaring that if he were a Jesuit ‘no one would know that I was speaking my own words: or was a continuation, as it were, of my former self’ (LD xi. 306).
He then returned to Wiseman’s suggestion that he and his companions should become Oratorians, though the idea had never completely left his mind. In December 1846 he and Ambrose St John visited the Roman Oratory which he found ‘the most beautiful thing of the kind we have seen in Rome’; he was particularly impressed by the library and the personal apartments, adding that it was ‘like a College with hardly any rule’ (LD xi. 305). In January 1847 he began a novena in order to determine whether his ‘vocation’ was really to the Oratory. Shortly afterwards the choice was made. Three factors seem to have determined it: his attraction to the person of St Philip; his own situation as a former fellow of an Oxford college and as the leader of a group of fellow-converts, which called for a form of community life; and the ‘missionary’ situation of England in the mid-nineteenth century.
Newman was ordained a Catholic priest on 30 May 1847. In June he left the College of Propaganda and began an Oratorian noviciate, together with Ambrose St John and several other former members of his Littlemore community (then living, at Wiseman’s initiative, at Oscott College a short distance from Birmingham) who had travelled to join them. The noviciate was under the direction of Fr Rossi of the Roman Oratory; it did not however (contrary to regulations) take place at the Oratory but in the Cistercian abbey of Santa Croce on the outskirts of Rome. It was remarkable for its brevity – only five months in place of the (now) statutory three years – and for its absence of content – the novices only rarely saw their novice master. Newman’s later recollections of it were as terribly ‘dreary’ (AW 256); the activities of the noviciate consisted mainly in ‘room-sweeping, slop-emptying, dinner-serving, bed making, shoe blacking’ (LD xii. 97). He used much of his abundant free time to write his first novel, Loss and Gain, published in 1848. However, he profited also from that free time to document himself thoroughly on St Philip and on the history of the Oratory, reading everything then available (all in Latin and Italian) on the two subjects. The fruits of this reading and research are abundantly clear in the numerous chapter addresses which he gave to the members of his newly founded Oratory, particularly during the year 1848. Although he never later succeeded, for lack of time, in writing the history of St Philip and of his Oratory, he did produce a number of lengthy and valuable sketches of both.
Keith Beaumont, prêtre de l’Oratoire de France
Lire la suite du chapitre ici : Newman and the Oratory – Revised 22-04-18