While in England for some meetings with various diocesan representatives and the fabulous ecumenical Centre for Theology and Community in East London, our wonderful hosts Carlos and Alessandra (whose son here is an enthusiastic Eagles fan!) gave us a brief tour of the Brompton Oratory, the home to London’s Oratorian community, the congregation of Saint Philip Neri. Although not a religious order, the Oratorians are a community of priests who live together under a Rule of Life, which was instituted by Neri, known sometimes as “the Apostle of Rome,” in the 16th century. Brompton is one of four Oratories in England, the others being in Oxford, Manchester, and Birmingham.
I chose to remain in the church after the brief tour to stay on by myself for Mass (in Latin) and was able to position my seat near a side altar dedicated to Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman.
While the mortal remains of the saintly convert have been reclaimed by the earth – none were found in his damp tomb when it was opened during his beatification cause – the monument was a stirring reminder of the English Catholic Church and its enormous contribution to world Christianity. Newman was a particularly important figure in this narrative, one that was repeatedly extolled explicitly by Pope Benedict XVI and numerous scholars of the Second Vatican Council, who sometimes informally refer to Vatican II as “Newman’s Council.”
His life, like the CTC’s work today and so much of British history, is a complex story of Anglican-Catholic relations. As he was so fluent in both traditions and so eloquent in his defense of Christian values, ecclesial history, and developing doctrine in a post-Enlightenment world dominated by rationalism and skepticism, Newman is still revered by both communities. Perhaps most interestingly, Newman was an ardent defender of the important role of laity in the church, arrived at by his historical study of the Arian controversy and explicated more fully in his Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine.
He famously once wrote: “What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is; it is one of those ‘better gifts,’ of which the Apostle [Paul] bids you to be ‘zealous.’ You must not hide your talent in a napkin, or your light under a bushel. I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious but men [sic] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity …In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit.”
I spent a few minutes reflecting on this hope in the Oratory, while pondering the motto from Newman’s coat of arms: Cor ad Cor Loquitur (“heart speaks unto heart”). How wonderful the People of God’s future can and will be if we cling to the vision that this prayerful aspiration continues to transform the heart of our church in a world where more people are literate than ever before.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.