Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Tribute to Fr. Frederick William Faber

Fr. Anthony Symondson, SJ, delivered this outstanding tribute to Frederick William Faber, English hymnwriter ("Faith of Our Fathers") and founder of the London Oratory, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death in 1863.

The death of Fr Frederick William Faber of Bright’s Disease at the age of forty-nine on the morning of 26 September 1863, just after seven, after a long and painful illness was met by an outpouring of grief that affected the greater part of London and extended to distant parts of the country. His funeral in the newly-built Oratory Church attracted a great crowd of rich and poor of whom the second were in the ascendant; the poor loved him and he loved them. Among the clergy in attendance were John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning who would soon be Archbishop of Westminster. Also participating were Dominican and Capuchin friars, Jesuit priests and Benedictine monks, with priests from France, Belgium and Germany.

He was one of the most eminent Catholic priests in Northern Europe and his spiritual influence achieved through his hymns, poetry, devotional and theological books was profound. They were intended for his ‘invalid souls’ of the middle class and ‘poor Belgravians’. While his beautiful hymns have been adopted by many denominations and are sung all over the English-speaking world.

More than any other figure, Fr Faber defined the tone and learning of mid-Victorian ultramontane Catholicism. His legacy is the Brompton Oratory with its continuing fusion – in music, learning, art, and architecture – of the Catholic faith and spirit of the papal Rome of the high Baroque, and of its genius, St Philip Neri. Unswerving loyalty to the Holy See was his watchword and devotion to the Mother of God was for him the safeguard of faith and source and support of true piety.

Fr Faber was born in 1814. a son of the vicarage. He came from an Evangelical Anglican clerical family on both sides of Huguenot origin that had served the Church of England for generations. His father was secretary to Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham. He was at first educated privately and at Bishop Aukland Grammar School. In 1826 he moved on to Shrewsbury for a year and then, in 1827, to Harrow School where unabashedly he told Lord John Manners, he ‘felt always quite wild – wild with the power of intillect’ and was considered without intellectual rival.

His mother died in 1827 when he was thirteen and he is said to have defied God to strike him dead in a thunderstorm in Harrow churchyard but his hard feelings were arrested by the kindness of his headmaster, Charles Longley, later Archbishop of Canturbury, and his faith was given a new turn by John William Cunningham, the Evangelical vicar of Harrow and unofficial chaplain to the school.

In 1832 Faber matriculated and failed to win a Balliol scholarship but late in 1834 was elected a scholar of University College. Initially he rejected Newman’s influence for Evangelical Calvinism but a sermon preached by Dr Pusey on Septuagesima Sunday of 1836 encouraged him to embrace Tractarianism and he was thoroughly convinced by the arguments of Newman’s Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church.

In December of that year he graduated with a disappointing second-class honours degree. Faber was made deacon in the Church of England on 6 August 1837 and ordained priest on 26 May 1839. In the summer of that year he travelled to Belgium and Germany with Richard Church, subsequently Dean of St Paul’s, and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, later Dean of Westminster, but wrote of Romanism, that ‘it will not do’ expressing his disgust with ‘careless irreverence, the noise, the going in and out, the spitting of the priests on the Altar steps’.

Then came five years living in the Lake District where he served as a curate at Ambleside, was befriended by Wordsworth, wrote poetry, was tutor to Matthew Harrison, became involved with Lord John Manners, in the Young England movement, and figured as the Rev Aubrey St Lys, an idealised portrait of him seen through Manners’s eyes, in Disraeli’s novel, Sybil. Under Faber’s influence Manners became a great believer in ‘all old thing’ - in James II, the Stuarts, the Jacobites, and the Carlists. Faber turned him into a Romantic High Churchman.

In 1843 Faber was inducted into the University College living of Elton in Huntingdonshire. During the years 1839-43 he made two continental tours, and his letters give striking poetic descriptions of the scenes he visited; they glow with enthusiasm for Catholic rites and devotion. In Rome he was received in audience by Pope Gregory XVI and acquired a devotion to St Philip Neri, whose life he translated at Elton, where he turned his household servants into a brotherhood. He established the practice of confessions, preached Catholic doctrine, and wrote the life of St Wilfrid, controversially openly advocating the claims and supremacy of Rome. He was greatly loved by his people. It was only Newman’s influence that prevented him from entering the Church.

But on 9 October 1845, Newman was received into the Church at Littlemore. In November, with Francis Knox and ten other friends and servants, Faber was received into the Church at Northampton by Bishop William Wareing, vicar apostolic of the eastern district. They settled in Birmingham, where they informally organized themselves as a religious community, calling themselves the Brothers of the Will of God, or ‘Wilfridians’ (as they were mischievously called by St Dominic Barberi) from St Wilfrid, their patron, at Cotton Hall, near Cheadle, Staffordshire, the gift of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Faber was ordained priest in 1847 and with his zealous community, now forty in number, converted the whole parish except ‘the parson, the pew-opener, and two drunken men.’ Cotton brought A. W. N. Pugin into Faber’s life through the patronage of Lord Shrewsbury; he was commissioned to design the new church, during which Faber declared, to Pugin’s annoyance, his new Italiannate taste. In 1848, Newman arrived from Rome with his new congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri and established himself at Old Oscott, Maryvale, in Birmingham. Faber abandoned the Wilfridians and placed himself under Newman as a simple novice, taking with him all his community who were willing to follow his example.

In 1849 he was sent by Newman to found the Oratory in King William Street, at Charing Cross, and was appointed its superior. It caused a sensation and a scandal. The chapel was set up in rented premises in a whisky shop and assembly room called the Lowther Rooms, described by Faber to Pugin as ‘a poisonous place & 2 hospitals one on each side shutting out all air.’ It attracted a congregation of wealthy English aristocrats and bug-ridden pauper Irish. Faber fitted it out gloriously in the Italian Baroque style but it was not to everybody’s taste:

‘Has your Lordship heard that the Oratorians have opened the Lowther Rooms as a chapel,’ Pugin wrote to Lord Shrewsbury, ‘- a place for the vilest debauchery, masquerades etc.. – one night a masqued ball, next Benediction. This appears to be perfectly monstrous, and I give the whole order up for ever. What a degredation for religion.  Why, it is worse than the Socialists. What a place to celebrate the mysteries of religion in! I cannot conceive how it is allowed. It cannot even be licensed or protected by law, since they only have it for a time. It is the greatest blow we have had for a long time; no men have been so disappointing as these. Conceive poor Faber come down to the Lowther Rooms. The man who wrote ‘Thoughts and Sights in Foreign Churches!!!’ hiring the Lowther Rooms. Well may they cry out against screens or anything else. I always said they wanted rooms, not churches, and now they have got them. Sad times! I cannot imagine what the world will come to, if it goes on much longer.’

Letters flew.

On 9 October 1850 Newman released the fathers from their obedience and on 12 October Fr Faber became superior of the independent London Oratory. In the excitement of the ‘papal aggression’ of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, the black Oratorian habits and broad-brimmed hats made a metropolitan commotion, not least in Punch. In 1854 the Oratory moved to its permanent home in the Brompton Road. There Fr Faber spent the remaining nine years of his life, occupied primarily in establishing his community on the strict observance of St Philip’s Institute, convinced that fidelity to the Roman model was its one vital principle. The Sacraments, prayer – including the reverent and exact performance of the ceremonies of the Church - and the daily Word of God were St Philip’s weapons and he would never engage in other external works, however good.

Fr Faber’s promotion of devotions to Our Lady, the saints, and the Blessed Sacrament, more common under skies of Mediterranean blue, brought them within the general orbit of Catholic worship in these islands and for him also represented a return to the fervour of his early evangelicalism, as did his popular vernacular hymns, which transformed Catholic worship. For many years after his death Fr Faber was a household word for many English-speaking Catholics and some Anglicans. He is well known for hymns such as ‘Faith of Our Fathers’, ‘There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy’, ‘Hark, Hark my Soul’ and ‘Jesus Gentlest Saviour’ among others. They represent the best of Victorian Catholic piety in their power to strengthen, to console, to warm and to delight. Their stress lies on what he called the ‘wideness of God’s mercy’, and in their teaching on purificatory suffering they widened the bounds of purgatory. He was known as well for his devotional works which encouraged Marian piety and frequent reception of the sacraments. Fr Faber’s most notable work, All for Jesus, published in 1853, was translated into several languages and sold widely throughout Europe. As Fr Large reminded us in his brilliant article in this week’s Catholic Herald, Cardinal Heenan would recall that All for Jesus was to be found on the bedside table of Blessed Pope John XXIII and was His Holiness’s favourite night-time reading.

During the 150 years since Fr Faber’s death thousands have owed their faith to worshipping at the London Oratory, have received the sacraments here efficiently and reverently administered, have sought solid spiritual direction and instruction, and have come to love the beauty of Western Catholicism in its fullness. Under God this is entirely the result of Frederick William Faber’s benign influence, work, writing and devotion to promoting the truth. If you seek his monument look around you.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: