The Oratory of St Philip Neri is an Edwardian Baroque masterpiece planned by Cardinal Newman but built after his death. The interior is sumptuously Roman, with side chapels, confessionals, gorgeous organ loft housing a singing gallery, chapel of St Philip Neri complete with effigy under the altar – all the fittings for elaborate RC ritual, which they perform.
Filippo Romolo Neri, born in Florence in 1515 to a wealthy family, gave up his wealth to work among the poor of Rome. In 1548 he founded a lay confraternity of like-minded charitable workers. Ordained in 1551, he went on to found the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory, officially approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1575. He died in 1595 and was canonised by Pope Gregory XV on March 12, 1622. In England, Cardinal Newman, who nurtured a special devotion to St Philip Neri, established the Oratory at Birmingham in 1848 with the blessing of Pope Pius IX. Today the Oratory sponsors a primary school as well as a number of groups, including Brothers of the Little Oratory, Women’s Oratory, Junior Oratory, Young Catholic Adults, and chapters of the Legion of Mary and St Vincent de Paul Society. Masses are celebrated every day in English and Latin.
The Oratory is located in Edgebeston, a well-to-do suburb southwest of the Birmingham city centre. It is full of hotels, botanical gardens, exclusive clubs, gourmet restaurants, and historic churches. An immediate neighbour to the Oratory is an 18th century folly tower (the monument in Monument Road), which may have inspired JRR Tolkien’s reference to towers in Lord of the Rings. The Oratory has a huge catchment area and car park, so the congregation represents the whole of Birmingham in all its rich diversity.
High mass was celebrated by three clergy, assisted by about twenty servers round the altar and full choir in the gallery. There was a visiting preacher from Aid to the Church in Need, an international papal charity (quoting from their website) ‘serving our suffering and persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.’
What was the name of the service?High Mass (Latin).
How full was the building?
Huge building, probably a quarter full – but that is several hundred people. It felt well attended. Very diverse congregation (in age and race) united in reverence. Immediately after, there was another mass (English) with about the same number in the congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The church is used all the time by people who are attending to their devotions, so it feels welcoming without meeting and greeting.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Traditional wooden chair. Kneeling is made easy and everyone does it.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Prayer-filled. There were crying babies at moments but they didn't shatter that depth of piety.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The Asperges: ‘Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor ...’ (You will sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be made clean …).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Oratory Mass Book, which has both Latin and English. The congregation all knew the responses in Latin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ (oh dear – read on!). It is an opus of Rushworth & Dreaper of Liverpool, and was rebuilt in 1987 by Nicholson & Co. Ltd of Malvern. The choir sang the entire service in Gregorian chant.
Did anything distract you?
The organ, which was played mercilessly over the top of the singers. They were singing their socks off up there but the organ drowned them.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very reverential, with incense, much taking off and putting on of headgear, genuflecting, breast-beating, procession with candles. Interestingly, confessions were also being heard during mass, and people were queuing up beside me for confession.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 — More an appeal than a sermon. The preacher was there to tell us about his charity, which he did, having said how grateful he was to be there.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Short description of their work in Syria and Malawi. We are called to share our love of God and to be generous. He made three requests: for money, prayer, and more knowledge of his cause.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Dramatic interior, with clouds of incense climbing up shafts of sunlight. Singing would have been wonderful if only we could have heard it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organ. Why do church musicians think Gregorian chant must be sung to organ accompaniment? If they think the congregation needs support in singing, the choir was there to supply that.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The next congregation was hard on the heels of the recessional.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Sorry. I didn't sample it. They were very intent on selling cakes to each other.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 — I liked them and enjoyed the mass and the building, though not the organ, but life is short and I am not often in Birmingham.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
They make it clear that only Roman Catholics can take communion but I did not feel excluded. They are entitled to make any rules they like.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The really dreadful organ.