Engaging the effective elements in Newman’s vision of education at The Oratory School.
“That insignificant little school”! The Benedictine who was so dismissive of The Oratory School in the post-war period of its then almost ninety-year history, was –to say the leastwide of the mark.
It has never been a large school but has always been significant, punching well above its weight in its contribution to Catholic education in this country, and schooling a succession of the scions of distinguished Catholic families.
At the present time, it is an earnest of its identity and reputation, that mention of the school in certain circles evokes a recognition that is at once select, familiar, warm and appreciative of much more than just academic elitism.
An article in the Daily Telegraph fairly recently, described the school as representing “comfortable country house Catholicism.” That may express the familiar tradition at the heart of the school.
In the wider context, the school pursues an active engagement with the world beyond its gates. Together with re-location from its original Birmingham home on two occasions in its history, The Oratory School has always managed to carry forward and to convey to the new generations of its alumni, that indefinable yet potent blend of all the qualities that make a young man a Christian gentleman and at the same time a citizen of the world. None of this should come as a surprise when one recalls the man and the inspiration which were the foundation of the school. John Henry Cardinal Newman was both a genius of intellectual eminence and of educational understanding. He chose for himself and for his brethren in religion the Oratorian way of spiritual development and community. He wanted the same principles to be employed in the education of boys. At the school he gathered around him a group of like-minded individuals who would share his vision and shape the young minds and hearts in their charge.
As in the rule of the Oratory Fathers, there was to be no streamlining of a restrictive religious spirituality. The school would not operate on the basis of the boy being made to fit the system. The discipline and the inspiration from which it derived were to be bespoke rather than off-the-peg. The recognition of the unique personality of each boy is given clear expression in the motto of the school, which the Cardinal adopted from the writings of St Francis de Sales, cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaking to heart. This might sound like a soft option. It certainly is not. Hard-won honours in sport, in the wider theatre of human endeavour and of military prowess testify to that. A military friend and confrere of mine once remarked to me “Oratory boys make excellent officers”. The important aspect for all who understand and appreciate the school is that –for the most partits methods succeed.
At no time has the school ever forgotten or forsaken the inspiration of our founder. That includes a policy both in the past and in the present of refusing to accept only boys of a higher academic ability. It is recognised that ability means achieving the very best that you can, not assuring that only those capable of the highest grades are admitted. Of course such a standard of admission may appear less attractive to some, but it takes account of human nature and human reality which clearly does not distribute the same degree of any attribute of beauty or of intelligence to everyone.
It also takes into account a key element of the Cardinal’s own spirituality which expressed itself in maintaining the individual’s responsibility for ascertaining and pursuing his Godgiven vocation. By the same token, it is an approach which asks exceptional dedication from teachers. Clever children are the easiest to teach. It takes real skill and great love of your subject and your pupils to motivate those who are less confident and need more encouragement.
The school which in John Henry Newman’s time numbered around seventy boys has now grown to four hundred. It owes its present post-war site and survival to the tenacity and determination of two former pupils, Viscount Fitzalan of Derwent, last Viceroy of Ireland, and first Chairman of Governors and Richard Dean who followed him in that post. The acres in Woodcote, South Oxfordshire and the early 18th century house that still forms the nucleus of the school complex, were acquired through their endeavours.
In gratitude, their portraits adorn one of the principal rooms in the school. Their success in saving the school then has continued ever since and has been more than extended by the present Board of Governors, the teaching department and the Head Master, Mr Clive Dytor, in the recent addition of new boarding houses and the renovation of the Old Chapel. The latter is no longer spacious enough to accommodate the whole school but it has a character and atmosphere that is special. Old boys who remember it and visit it today, do so with not a little emotion. It remains a spiritual centre for the enlarged school. There is of course a much larger chapel used on full school occasions, but it does not easily lend itself to private prayer. This leads me appropriately into the consideration of that quality of the school which pervades it: Catholicity. Knowing who its founder was one should not have any doubt that the same spirit of quest and discovery of the revealed and defined truth of universal faith is central to what this school continues to develop.
The Cardinal desired mature, wellinformed and intelligently instructed young men who would be both articulate and energetic in faith. The methods by which the school has sought to achieve this result are by engagement, enquiry and example. There is no substitute for personal identification with the values and teachings of the Gospel as handed on to us by the teaching office of the Church. Routines of prayer, reflection, worship, recollection and pastoral and liturgical involvement all coalesce into a framework which supports and gradually transforms the person.
Exposure to all that is best in the Catholic heritage of past and present forms of religious expression is a valuable element in the development of a pupil’s character and personality. Coercion is not effective. Conversation, conviviality and mutual courtesy are approaches that we find tend to work much better.
An important part of this unique approach is the aim to instruct the boys fully in the narrative of the school’s history, traditions and inspiration, centred on St Philip Neri’s life and spirituality and also the spiritual and doctrinal insights of Cardinal Newman. This is a combination of the well-known humour and lucidity of the Phillipine tradition with a serious quest for breadth and depth of meaning which characterised Newman.
Like many other Catholic schools, the Oratory has had to work with and through the many changes that have affected us all since the 1960’s. The school’s strong affiliation to the spirituality of St Philip Neri, and its independent traditions and outlook, has ensured that many of the least helpful and more ephemeral experiments in RE and liturgical gimmickry have been bypassed.
The school has preserved a sober and dignified style of worship and community prayer. This is reflected in its sung solemn Masses on Sundays and significant festivals throughout the year as well seasonal and devotional aids to participating in and understanding both the liturgy and the theology of the Church from which it derives.
No boy will leave this school unfamiliar with celebrations of Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary and the rich choral and hymnal traditions that come from both the ancient liturgies of the Church and those that have come to us from our own homegrown English tradition of superb hymns and melodies. The dictum of St Augustine that he who sings, prays twice over is one that would readily recommend itself to all of us who are charged with the responsibility of directing and celebrating the liturgy in the school.
The voluntary involvement of the boys at every stage in their time here, in singing, reading and serving is one of the great strengths of this school and a feature that both impresses and moves visitors and observers of the boys in various events in which they have taken part. Prominent among these events is the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, during which boys are joined by girls from a local Catholic school and by a group of adults in taking part as Redcaps (young helpers) in the Westminster Diocesan Pilgrimage. They have gained much from this and have been both honoured and recognised for their dedication.
No less than formation in appropriate modes of prayer and worship is the attention paid to their altruistic and philanthropic development. Throughout the year, boys are encouraged to provide help with sport and teaching in local primary schools and to visit the house-bound.
National schemes for characterbuilding, young enterprise and selfdiscipline are also a part of the many facilities offered to them while at school. One could wax lyrical about the developing talents of the boys in sport, music, drama and public speaking. Suffice to say that it is a strong feature of an old Oratorian that he will be great to have in your team and rarely lost for words.
In the seemingly endless discussions which went on at that time –and no doubt, ever sinceabout the results of all that we were supposed to be achieving in the deanery in London where I first served as a priest four years ago, I recall the wisdom of )the then Parish Priest of Farm Street, Fr Peter Knott. Whenever evidence of some great movement or surge of interest was demanded or expected, he would often say quite calmly, “It’s all very difficult to quantify”. With the Catholic education of boys it can be very much the same. A great deal of what has been sown and tended may remain hidden or unused for a time, even for years. Then, quite suddenly, the green shoots show above the soil. I can’t say whether in every single case the results will be uniform or entirely successful but the enterprise is both challenging and apostolic. A handful of Christ’s Disciples changed the course of history over a relatively short period of time. The Oratory School has been in the business of educating boys for around 150 years. A key element in this is the Oratorian ambition to emulate St Philip in his example and in his witness to the Gospel. The school is set fair to advance and to continue to raise its stake even higher. In doing so, it will always welcome all interested cooperators and participants in the challenge of a lifetime.
Antony Conlon School Chaplain Email: [email protected] Tel: 01491 683 500