Mass in Celebration of the 150th Anniversary
of the London Oratory School
Friday 27 September 2013
Today, we celebrate this Mass in thanksgiving for the history and achievements of the London Oratory School. Its origins lie in the ardent wish of the Oratorian Fathers to provide education for the city’s poorest children. The fascinating history which follows is well recorded in the beautifully produced publication, The London Oratory School: A Celebration of 150 years. I hope you all read it. In its pages we discover many reasons to give thanks and glory to God for a century and a half of the School. As the Headmaster David McFadden notes, the book is a synthesis of “the spirit of the school” – a spirit rooted in the teachings and example of St. Philip Neri. St. Philip’s teachings and example were, of course, first learned by him from the Gospel, from Jesus himself.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” St. Philip firmly believed these wonderful words of Our Lord. He believed wholeheartedly that everything our Lord teaches and commands us is for this purpose: that the Lord’s joy may be in us and that our joy may be full, complete. This firm belief shone out brilliantly in the life of Philip Neri, “saint of joy”. This is what made him so fruitful a teacher.
Blessed Pope John Paul II praised the cheerful and relaxed educational method of St Philip, giving support to each person with fraternal generosity and patience. A favourite maxim of this “smiling teacher” was “Scruples and melancholy, stay away from my house!” St. Philip combined humour with holiness. He knew well the need to cultivate a life of prayer, our need of God’s grace, especially as lavished upon us through the Sacraments. He shows that holiness is not about being grim-faced, but can –and should - be combined with immense enjoyment of life. And to the combination of humour and holiness add humility. For these reasons, many people from afar came to see this man of great sanctity. However, St. Philip arranged it – I’m told - that one such group of pilgrims should find him listening to another priest reading to him from books of jokes. We are not to take ourselves too seriously!
Our joyful saint never doubted the astounding achievements of which the human person is capable, particularly in art and music. Bl. John Paul II tells us that St Philip, “convinced that beauty leads to goodness, brought all that had an artistic stamp into the realm of his educational project.” He promoted artistic forms in the formation of young people because they can serve as paths to truth and goodness. Our “prophet of joy” did so much to make sure that art was elevated to the service of God and that music became re-creation of the spirit. Happily, this great tradition of St. Philip endures in the London Oratory School today.
So, what do we learn for today? First, I ask all the Staff, echoing again the words of Bl. Pope John Paul, that you are always “sowers of joy among young people, who are so often tempted to discouragement and lack of confidence.” To do this is the work of an evangelist, to fulfil your ministry, spoken of in the Second Reading today. Strive to have that “irresistible charm” that St Philip “exercised upon all who drew near to him” (which included both beggars and bankers), enabling them “to learn to know and experience the authentic source of Christian joy.”
To do this, we need to look more closely at the true source of lasting joy. Here Bl John Henry Newman comes to our help. He explains that it is Jesus himself who is this authentic source, “the fountain and centre of all… joy.” Assuring us that “it is good to be joyful”, that we should “seek the grace of a joyful heart,” Bl. John Henry points to the Incarnation as the great lesson of joy (see his sermon, Religious Joy) a joy that is stronger than every trial and every hardship. At the source of his joy is his relationship with his Father. Jesus, God the Son, yet fully human, teaches us how to know and love the Father and in that knowledge and love to be filled with an unshakeable joy. By the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Jesus draws us into his relationship with his Father, and that fills us with a divine joy. All Jesus had heard the Father say, he has made known to us! As the Father loves him, so he loves us! May the London Oratory ever remain a school where Jesus is heard to say: “Abide in my love”; and each person knows he or she is addressed by the Lord as “friend”. With unfailing patience let this be the constant teaching of the School. Then, rather than wander from the truth (see second reading), the young people formed within the School will know for sure that the Lord’s commandments are not kill-joys, the expectations of our faith not negative restrictions, but rather the path to complete happiness. May the London Oratory be a place where Jesus is met as an ever-faithful friend and the art of friendship with him is cultivated.
And, of course, parents you know your privileged vocation to make your homes, in their own way, schools living this same faith, places of an unshakeable confidence in the Father and therefore homes of a deep and lasting joy.
Now I very much want say a special word to all the students. I ask only this of you: really and deeply believe that Jesus has chosen you, each one of you, to be his precious friend. In and with Jesus, you are the Father’s beloved! Believe this and you will follow his command: Love one another. Look to St. Philip to show you how. Like Jesus he was able to enter into the suffering of others, whether he found it in the wealthiest settings or in conditions of great poverty. He carried to those wounded, spiritually and physically, the presence of Jesus, the very healing light and warmth of God. See how St. Philip’s joy, dedication to prayer, and humility bore great fruit in active charity.
This charity, this love, was not some kind of general feeling directed toward humankind as an abstract idea. No St. Philip’s love was practical, for real, living, individuals and expressed in actual deeds of kindness. Such genuine practice of love, as Bl. John Henry Newman wisely reminds us, must begin by exercising itself on those around us - especially when this is not at all easy. Those with whom we study and work do not always seem lovable. Yet, beginning with love-in-action for those of our immediate community “we form in our hearts”, Bl. John Henry instructs us, “that root of charity which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth” (see, Love of Relations and Friends, Sermon on The Feast of St. John the Evangelist).
Yet, -and this is important - such love is received before it can be given. It comes to us from, and fashioned by, the one who calls us “Friends”. Such love can only be sustained when we allow his heart to speak to our hearts. He is doing so, in a most extraordinary manner, at this and every Mass. With the Mass at the centre of the life of the London Oratory, it will indeed be a school of authentic charity, a community rooted in and nurtured by an intimate friendship with Christ. Nourished by his Body and Blood, practical, effective love will be a hallmark of everyone in the School, not just spoken about in mission statements and catechism, but actively beginning with those within its own circle and surely spreading its embrace ever further afield.
In this 150th Anniversary Year we rightly remember the beginning of the London Oratory; but we must also remember the end of the School, the ultimate purpose for its existence. Respice finem [the school motto]! Look to the final destination God desires for each pupil, member of staff, and everyone who, in one way or another, journeys though the School. Look to Heaven! There the joy of Jesus will be in us in a way far surpassing our greatest joy in this life. In Heaven our joy will be full! Look to this most marvellous end. Look and be inspired to learn to love one another here and now, even as in the words of the School Song we pray: “Legifer noster Philipe Iuste, Fac nos in patria Vivere” (O Philip Ruler make thy stock, In heaven always to dwell with thee)!
Archbishop of Westminster