Saints and scholars and mystics
THE SKIES OVER OXFORD were a bright, burning blue. Overnight frost clung to pantiles and pavements, glistening in the winter morning sun. On Magdalen Bridge, tourists stopped to look down into the icy waters of the Cherwell; the punt station silent, summer's reverie a distant memory.
Across the bridge, the Iffley Road curved away into the sun past the playing fields where Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile. The Italianate tower of St Edmund and St Frideswide breaks through the winter haze, the church and friary careering into view like some stranded vessel from the high seas.
The parish is usually known as 'Greyfriars' a reference to the first Franciscan friars in Oxford who wore habits of undyed or 'grey' cloth. They established a religions college in Oxford in 1224, attracting academic luminaries such as Blessed John Dun Scotus -`the subtle doctor' who defined the 'Immaculate Conception' of the Virgin Mary. With the Reformation the college was sequestered and the friars left Oxford.
The Jesuit Fathers built the present church as a Chapel of Ease in 1911 and handed it over to the Capuchin friars in 1928. `Greyfriars' became a permanent private hall of the University in 1956. Parish and collegiate life are now separate but complimentary.
The church is deceptive in size a solid Romanesque building with rounded arches that blends effortlessly into the Friary. The flint façade is unusual for Oxford, reminiscent of Suffolk or Norfolk. The interior is unexpectedly simple, warm and welcoming. The sanctuary has a Mediterranean feel polished stone and curled wrought iron; a small side chapel recalls a Spanish devotion to 'Our Lady of the Good Shepherd'. Stations of the Cross, donated by Canon Walmsley of Preston, bring colour to the plain walls splashes of bright mosaic framed in gold.
Blessed Agnelius of Pisa was sent to England by St Francis and came to Canterbury, London and thence to Oxford. A stained glass window to his memory casts a coloured light over the sanctuary. Small remnants of the Friars' ancient building remain. A stone from the old Greyfriars church holds the Processional Cross; a carved stone plinth leans against a chapel wall.
Parish Priest Fr Paschal Burlinson OFM Cap is Superior Of the Community. Change his robes for scarlet and he would make a wonderful Father Christmas, with his gentle face, bright blue eyes and silver beard. He has an infectious laugh and a resonant voice, a deep, mellow timbre, with just a hint of his northern, Chester origins.
As a Capuchin Friar he wears a simple "capuccino coloured" robe, rope belt and hood. The Capuchin refoun dates back to 1528. Fr Burlinson reminds me that the large hood was a link back to St Francis; the beard a sign of reform. "We were privileged to wear the beard when no one else was permitted to do so just the Capuchins and the Missionaries".
The most famous Capuchin in the 20th Century is Padre Pio. The years since his death in 1968 have witnessed a growing devotion. San Giovanni Rotondo, his home and resting place, has become a place of pilgrimage: "This was a man dedicated to God; the mystic of the 20th Century." There are now 270 Padre Pio Prayer Groups in the UK alone; Fr Burlinson is the National Director.
For 10 years the Church clamped down on Padre Pit,; he was confined to the Friary. I venture that this could be regarded as an abuse of human rights. Fr Burlinson agrees: "But he was under obedience. It was his choice and he accepted the Church's wishes. Every day he would say Mass and walk and pray in the cloisters. It was a mark of his devout faith".
On Sunday 17 December, Classic FM will record the Greyfriars Carol Service. The concert will be played before Midnight on Christmas Eve: "Classic FM said they wanted an 'ordinary parish'," says Fr Burlinson. In the steps of saints, scholars and mystics, nothing could be further from the truth.