Tradition and the Future

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On October 4, 2013, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear Father and Brothers:

This morning, and perhaps in subsequent Chapter Addresses, I want to talk about elements in our own Oratorian experience, which I think are important, and which I would like to try to hand on to others.

First of all, I think that an Oratory, which has any chance of surviving its founders, must be based on a serious intention to found an Oratory; an Oratory, that is, that is more than a convenient way of providing a base for a group of men doing various sorts of priestly work. After the war of 1939, in Germany, there were a number of oratories founded by priests who wanted community life, who saw the advantages of priests living together for the apostolate, but who had little time for the traditional usages of the Oratory. They quickly became what Newman called boarding houses, and did not survive their founding members – if they managed that. So, some attention has to be given to what our critics would call the monastic side of the Oratory tradition. All I want to point to about this, at the moment, is that the common life, as such, must be central to a living together which is successful, and, very importantly, capable of continuing beyond the first generation. I mean nothing more by this than usages such as our prayer at Oratory, our concern for the refectory, recreation in common, ways of handling money that are clearly understood, and a serious effort to understand that there is a government, a government which derives its legitimacy from the General Congregation, and is exercised for the most part through the Deputies and the Father.

I want to begin these outlines, on what I think important in our common life, by a few reflections on the role of the Father in the government of the Congregation. Fr Turks once said to me that part of the trouble with new oratories is that too often they are founded by a man with clear ideas about what he is trying to do, but he doesn’t manage to make the enterprise more than a one generation experience dependent on his presence. I think we are way beyond that, but I do want to get this out in the open by telling you how I have come to understand the Father’s role. I have said, come to understand, because my thinking has changed – and I hope developed – since 1967 – when I first began seriously to think about founding an Oratory.

I think the Father’s job is to prevent the House becoming a boarding house. How does the Father of an Oratory like ours, best do this? He does it by trying to make sure that the observance of what is the monastic side – to use, again, the word of our critics – is observed. To make sure that our regular times of prayer are adhered to by everyone, that those in charge of various ministries that affect the common life in an obvious way – the prefect of the refectory, of ceremonies and the like – keep things up to scratch. For other ministries, like that of the father minister, or of the father novice-master, he should try to counsel, to support – and if necessary point out things which need doing. To find the right balance in all this is more difficult than some of you seem to imagine. Our own situation makes the Father’s task more difficult, as we have two parishes and a seminary.
Micro-managing is clearly out of the question. On the other hand, that is not the same thing as saying that the Father should abdicate. Abdicate from what? Well, the right to be informed, to ask questions, and to suggest changes. The right sometimes to say what should be done. St Philip said that he who wishes to be obeyed must command little – but he didn’t say, he should never command at all. It is perfectly clear, from what we know about our saint, that, while he may have commanded little, command he did. There is no room for private empires in any Oratory, and it is my job to see that none develops here. A concern for the common good, a sense that we are at work for goals we all share is enough, in principle, to keep us together. Enlightened self-interest, as I often say, should go a long way to avoiding factions and forgetting the common good.

On the other hand, there must be co-ordination; and co-ordination requires a co-coordinator. It would also seem to be the case that co-ordination requires one person with the authority to ensure the smooth unfolding of what must be done.