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O is for Oratory: arrival of new-old parish

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A Mass was celebrated at Mary Immaculate Church in Annerley, Brisbane, in June according to the present revised liturgy (which has had a few changes in recent years, such as a new English translation), but if anything, was pretty atypical of those we have become accustomed to.

Celebrated by clergy in traditional vestments, clad in maniples and birettas, this was to commemorate the quincentenary of the birth of St Philip Neri, one of the greatest saints of the Counter-Reformation. The liturgy was performed by the Brisbane Oratory in Formation, a new group of diocesan clergy.

The Brisbane Oratory foundation members, from left: Br Francis King, Frs Paul Chandler (moderator), Adrian Sharp and Andrew Wise, Br Shawn Murphy and Fr Scott Armstrong. Photo: Emilie Ng, Catholic Leader
The Brisbane Oratory foundation members, from left: Br Francis King, Frs Paul Chandler (moderator), Adrian Sharp and Andrew Wise, Br Shawn Murphy and Fr Scott Armstrong. Photo: Emilie Ng, Catholic Leader

The Oratorians are a Pontifical Society of Apostolic Life who do not take the typical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. According to Neri, an Italian padre renowned for his eccentricity, the virtue of charity is what must animate every Oratorian house. There are about 70 oratories around the world, with about 500 priests.

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Fr Paul Chandler, moderator of the Brisbane Oratory, explains the motivating spirit of the organisation: “St Philip very much wanted to model it on the first Christian community, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.”

However, Oratorians are renowned for other things, as was quite evident that evening. In an article in the Australian, journalist and author Tess Livingstone wrote: “They are famous for traditional ‘bells and smells’ liturgies — including some Latin Masses, choirs, decorative churches, high-quality schools with rigorous teaching and adult education programs.”

While the 22 June Mass was celebrated according to the Novus Ordo, the celebrant did this in an ad orientem posture (with his back to the congregation), parts of the Mass were said in Latin, the singing of Gregorian chant, no handshake at the sign of peace, and communion distributed in a kneeling posture, and on the tongue.

The beautiful choir of young people in the loft sang the old pre Vatican II hymns like Firmly I Believe and Truly, and Crimond, with rich descants from the ladies.

A large part of the congregation consisted of younger people, and this, interestingly, is where the Oratory had its roots in Brisbane.

In 2010, a Catholic youth group for young men was formed in Brisbane, Frassati Youth, taking its inspiration from Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati OP, the young Dominican tertiary from Torino, whose remains had been at World Youth Day in Sydney two years previously (interestingly, Frassati is one of the patrons of the Brisbane Oratory).

Former Army captain Joseph Maloney, a young father of three children and one of the original Frassatis, explained its original intention.

“We were a group of young Catholic people who were interested in getting back to traditional practices like praying the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and more reverence at Mass.

Some young men started to live together in a few houses.

Fr Paul Chandler had been appointed our spiritual director, and we started to ask him to say the old liturgy. Initially he was reluctant, but as time went on, he started to appreciate the hunger many young people had to embrace the traditions of the Church”.

Fr Paul, a former schoolteacher and parish priest in the Brisbane archdiocese says: “God prepared the secular Oratory in Brisbane, before he brought the Clerical Oratory.

The goal of the Frassati group was to prepare young men to live their Catholic faith prayerfully and sacramentally, which we also aspire to do”.

The decree of erection for the Brisbane Oratory was promulgated on 24 December, 2014, and came into effect on 26 May this year, the feast day of St Philip Neri. The original foundation of six men and includes Fr Paul, a fellow Brisbane priest, canon lawyer Fr Adrian Sharp, Fr Andrew Wise, parish priest and cathedral dean from the diocese of Sale in Victoria, Fr Scott Armstrong, seminary lecturer from Wagga Wagga, and seminarians Shawn Murphy, from Melbourne, and Francis King, from Perth, both of whom are studying for the priesthood at the Oratorian seminary in Toronto, Canada.

But how did the actual Oratory itself come into effect? Fr Paul explains that a ‘group of priests in Melbourne’ wanted to found an Oratory in the early 2000s.

Auxiliary Bishop Mark Coleridge was very supportive, but “it didn’t get much further than official discussion among the group of priests themselves.”

However, in 2010, Fr Andrew Wise prayed at the tomb of St Philip Neri in Rome, and met liturgical scholar Fr Uwe Michael Laing, of the London Oratory.

“Fr Andrew talked with Fr Laing and asked himself the question: ‘Could an Oratory be started in Australia?’ Bishop Christopher Prowse, his bishop in Sale (now Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn) spoke to him about the Gamaliel principle in the Acts of the Apostles. ‘If it is of God it will last and succeed, but if it is of you, it will die.’

“He decided to talk to a few other priests and to myself and had a network through the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who had been appointed the Archbishop of Brisbane in 2011, said: ‘Yes, I want it. I will make it happen’.”

Fr Paul adds: “The procedure for setting up an Oratory is well established. A document is established called the modus procedenti. The Procurator General was contacted in Rome through Fr Laing, who was also appointed as his delegate to assist the group of priests in what they need to do. He came in 2012, and had a meeting with three priests.

“Then formal practicalities started with where we might be living, and what parishes we might be part of.

“Until the decree of erection last year, this has consisted of several meetings with the priests, to bear down some of the materials, that we could do it.

“By the middle of 2013 we had myself, Fr Wise, Fr Scott Armstrong; and Fr Adrian Sharp came on board.

“The next step was to put two of the potential Oratorian priests, Fr Sharp and myself in the Catholic parish of Annerley.”

It was then offered as a temporary home for the Oratory in the middle of 2014.

“I needed to reside in a parish,” says Fr Paul, “as I was writing my PhD last year. And Fr Adrian needed a place where he could be part-time in the parish, and part-time at the marriage tribunal. This seemed to be a good place, it had everything we needed. It was close to the city, it was a parish used to having one priest, so two of us part-time seemed to work.

“It meant that the two of us could start some aspects of Oratory life. But the archbishop didn’t send us here to start the Oratory, rather if it could be a possibility to start one.”

An Oratory must be in formation for at least three years, Fr Paul says. “To see whether we can establish community life, the Oratorian way of life, we have to prove we can do it.

“Then when the three years have elapsed, we the priests here, formally petition the Holy Father to erect us as an Oratory of St Phillip Neri. The Archbishop of Brisbane would need to send a supporting letter, saying that he would be happy for this to take place, as well.”

As Tess Livingstone noted, the Oratorians are renowned for their Latin liturgies, dressing up, and bells and smells. Fr Paul says: “At my previous parish on the north side of Brisbane, I began to say the Latin Mass – once a month, I think I started, and, thanks to the Frassati group, once a fortnight. Fr Scott has said the old liturgy for a couple of years. Fr Sharp is still learning it.

“By offering both forms of the Roman Liturgy, we are playing a part in evangelisation, and realising the vision of Pope Benedict in Summorum Pontificum.

“Oratorians do not say the old liturgy exclusively. In English- speaking Oratories, we celebrate both forms of the Roman Rite.”

Clearly it is this element of the Oratory’s modus operandi that has been the biggest attraction to potential recruits.

Fr Andrew Wise says: “I had a yearning to participate strongly in the liturgical life of the Church, and its vision of the enrichment of the two forms of the Roman Rite. That inspires all of us … liturgy which is celebrated, which is focused upon Christ rather than a focus on the priest and his particular gifts; the proclamation of the Catholic faith which forms us, and we all need to hear, we are all called to holiness, whether we are old or young.”

Fr Adrian agrees: “I think the Oratory is something people can come to, certainly our liturgical apostolate, the beautiful celebration of both forms of the liturgy, the ordinary and extraordinary, this is where people can come for that. There will be more Masses available to people than in an ordinary parish.”

So what happens in a typical Oratory?

Fr Paul says: “The Oratory life is a particular way of life, which has elements in common with other forms of church life. You know what diocesan priests are, you know what religious life is like, and you know what monasticism is. The Oratory has aspects of all three. The element of monasticism is that we are stable. You don’t get moved around. It is like religious life in that we live in community, we do have shared property, ownership of things. But, unlike religious life, we don’t take the vows. What binds us together, as Philip himself said, is the bond of charity. It has been said, that is harder to live than the vows.

“The words ‘Can you live with us a brother among brothers?’ are said over any person when he is clothed in the Oratorian habit. So it has to be the right fit between the man, and the community,”

The person in charge is the moderator when the Oratory is in formation. “Once we are established permanently,” says Fr Paul, “that title is changed to provost. The provost is like the superior of the community. The provost operates as the first among equals. We have our own property, we have our own bank accounts, as well as contributing from our own means towards the common fund.

“If someone discerns it is God’s will that he is not meant to be part of this community, there are no formalities to leave it.

“An Oratory has to be in an urban setting, unlike a monastery. It is a beautiful church, it is near to the city.

“We don’t have a superior general, we don’t have a provincial. We are a confederation of Oratory houses around the world.”

There are certain standards expected of Oratory houses. “We would have evening Oratory together,” Fr Paul says. “We must pray together every day, we are not bound to say the Office. We must have common meals together. We have this now four nights a week, so the community life is growing.”

The community life Oratorian priests have is undoubtedly enviable.

Fr Andrew Sharp, 40, who just completed a degree in canon law in Canada (and has been working in the marriage tribunal in Brisbane), touched on his reasons for being drawn to Oratory life.

“When I first read about the Oratory, I felt it had my name written all over it – the fact that the priest has an apostolic life, and a communal life with the others in the Oratory, the fact that the Oratory is a stable community, like a monastery where you stay with the same people for life. Having had a lot of moves as a priest, I found the intergenerational nature being associated with families over time a wonderful thing.

“By coming together and living a common life, it gives scope for a diversity of ministries. The same with confessions, which is a very Oratorian thing. So I see this as a very spiritual place where people will be able to come to. Some will make it their home, others will come from time to time.”

Fr Andrew Wise, who in many ways was the spark that got the Brisbane Oratory going, “felt the call to a traditional community life, while remaining a diocesan priest. I was not attracted a religious or a monastic life as such, but a diocesan priest living in community, in a traditional community life, united to the priests in the community, especially in the call to be united with the other priests, to participate strongly in the liturgical life of the Church, and its vision of the enrichment of the two forms of the Roman Rite”.

“That inspires all of us and is something that unites us, the sacrament of confession, working with young adults helping them to come to the maturity of the faith. A wonderful challenge, a wonderful calling opening the doors for us by the Lord’s providence that it will continue to develop and grow.”

Br Shawn Murphy, 25, “was drawn to the Oratory because it allows for a priest a degree of independence while remaining in community”.

“In St Phillip Neri’s time there were people attracted to wrong things, similar to our own. We can play a part in re-building a Christian culture. By offering both forms of the Roman Rite in a reverential manner, we can hope to attract the participation of the largest number of people, of which so often people have felt deprived. This is what led me to the extraordinary form community in St Aloysius Church, in Melbourne, and. after having gone there a few years, I discerned my vocation to the priesthood.”

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