There is a local inside joke about Oxford that goes like this: “How is the Anglican Church like the Turl?”
Answer: “Because it goes from High to Broad, passing by Jesus.”
The joke is usually told by Catholics, who can appreciate the irony of Turl Street, connecting the two thoroughfares Broad and High Streets by Jesus College, and its connection to the downward, secularist trend of the Church of England. Next to the Turl is another major north-to-south connector. To the consternation of expat graduate students like myself, it changes names every couple of blocks: Woodstock Road, St. Giles, Cornmarket, St. Aldates, and so on. On this long road paralleling the Turl, there are five different Catholic churches within a brisk fifteen-minute walk of each other. While the Anglican churches are now often used as college museums, theatres, or rooms for AA meetings, these Catholic outposts stand firm as busy places of worship, each with its own charism.
From what I was able to see in my two years as a Rhodes Scholar pursuing my Master’s degree in theology, Catholic life and faith is alive and well in Oxford. Not in the Theology Department, mind you, which is still largely enamored with nineteenth-century German heretics. There they love to talk about the Enlightenment and how “problematic” traditional theology is. When my advisor discovered that I had worked on Thomas Aquinas for all of my exam and essay requirements, he smiled disapprovingly and looked at me over his glasses: “Well, somehow you’ve managed to come to Oxford and do Catholic Studies!”
There are still faithful Catholics and students of Aquinas at Blackfriars, the Dominican permanent private hall. It is not, technically, one of the thirty-eight colleges at Oxford. If you ask someone at Blackfriars, he will tell you that it is only because they do not have a large enough endowment to be a college. Depending on the year, they may have a sufficiently impressive pool of athletic talent to man a boat for the major crew races (Summer Eights and Torpids), so few visitors would know the difference. The Middle Common Room, which is the hub of student social life, feels just like the one at my own college (Trinity), except there is a note that essentially states: “Wash your own dishes. Unlike the Jesuits, we don’t have the money to pay a maid to clean them for you.”
What is distinctive about Blackfriars, then, is not its status but its deeply Catholic nature and roots. It is said that Thomas Aquinas himself visited Blackfriars in the thirteenth century. To this day, it is a bustling house of study and prayer with daily Mass, Vespers, and its own in-house lectures on everything from beginning Hebrew to the most obscure liturgical theology. Its biggest asset, however, is the set of Dominican priests and brothers who study and teach there. On Monday nights, they lead an Aquinas group: Mass, Vespers, soup dinner, and theology. The discussions often spill over late into the night at the Lamb & Flag pub across the street, a frequent haunt of Lewis, Tolkein, and the Inklings.
The supervisor of my Master’s dissertation was a Dominican priest, and he is one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. Together we spent the better part of a year talking about the role of female leadership in the Catholic Church for my essay. It was such a blessing to do this kind of controversial work under the guidance of a faithful priest. We could explore the topic freely because I knew that he was not going to push heterodox ideas about female ordination on me. Instead, he understood firsthand how leadership in the Church was primarily about service, and that shaped our discussion in interesting ways. Like a dutiful spiritual father, he also took care of my soul throughout the process. One day, after reading too much radical feminism à la Mary Daly, I came to him discouraged and frustrated about the project. He handed me a book about the hidden life of Christ and Mary’s role as a mother in those years. It was the perfect answer: not more debating of ideas, but returning to reflection on Christ. I got the sense from studying with a Dominican that the purpose of theology is to get to know God better, and to love him more.
Though Blackfriars may well have been sufficient to keep me spiritually nourished at Oxford, there was so much more there for Catholics. In fact, my usual parish and source of spiritual solace and direction was not Blackfriars, but the Oxford Oratory, St. Aloysius. The thing I miss most about Oxford are the Masses at the Oratory, and it is my favorite church in the world (outside of those in the city of Rome). The altar features small statues of maybe a hundred saints, all recognizable by their traditional iconography, and on each saint’s feast day, a small candle is lit in front of him. On All Saints Day, the altar glows with the splendor of all of them combined. Part of the Oratory’s spiritual power lies in the sheer frequency of the sacraments and other devotions. There are, at minimum, three Masses per day, and confession before every Mass. On Monday nights, they venerate the relics of St. Philip Neri, the founder of their order. Every couple months, they make a pilgrimage as a parish to nearby churches and shrines, sometimes walking hours in the night to get there.
The other strength of the Oratory is the liturgy. Other than the 8 a.m. traditional Mass on Sundays, it’s novus ordo. However, it removes many of the abuses that have slipped into common practice. If you assist at Mass at the Oratory, you can expect a communion rail, a celebration ad orientem, and sometimes an entire liturgy in Latin. The high Mass at 11 a.m. on Sundays always features all three, complete with all the bells and incense one could desire, a Procession with three priests and multiple servers in splendid garb, and a church full of people, booming out the old English hymns. Finally, the Oratorians are all excellent confessors and homilists—I felt I could go to any of them about anything and get trustworthy advice. Though fastidiously orthodox, they are all congenial men. St. Philip Neri was renowned for his sense of humor, and they keep that tradition alive, telling jokes in their homilies and pranking each other in their rectory.
For those who prefer less liturgical formality and more young people, there is the Newman Center, which I found remarkably similar to the Catholic Center at Harvard. Unlike Harvard, however, the Newman Center is also a residence (the antique part of which is the “Old Palace,” referenced in Brideshead Revisited) for students and the (Jesuit) chaplains. The staple events are the same: speaker events with home cooked meals and socials. Once a term, students flood into the auditorium/worship space for céilidhs: good, clean fun with gaelic dancing. The Masses are exactly what an American student would expect: reverent but studiedly approachable. The point is to make a space in which a first-time Mass-goer would feel at home, and they achieve this handily.
Next to them, but slightly off the straight line of Catholic churches (in a couple of ways) is Campion Hall, home of the academic Jesuits. I only went for a handful of dinners and parties, but it is exactly what I thought all of Oxford would be like. It has beautiful, intricate stone work, dark wood features, and an impressive collection of religious art. The Jesuits have a well-stocked library (with floor-to-ceiling shelves) and they enjoy a glass of sherry before dinner. Unlike the rest of Oxford, which can feel a bit grungy, the whole place is immaculately maintained, probably by the staff jestingly coveted by the Dominicans. The only Mass I attended there was a strange affair—not in the gorgeous, old-world chapel, but a small, carpeted room. We all sat in a semicircle at its edges, and when it came time for Communion, the dish was passed from person to person, each giving his neighbor the sacrament. My discomfort increased over conversation at dinner, in which I revealed that I was studying the role of women in the Church. Several residents asked whether I would later be a priest(ess), which at first I thought was a joke and so brushed it off, laughing. When I finally said “No,” one of the priests scowled at me: “Well, you won’t find anyone here who has a problem with female priests.” Based on what I have seen, that may be true.
There is much more, most of which still remains unknown to me even after two years. I went to a few dinners at St. Benet’s, the Benedictine permanent private residence, complete with compline in the tiny chapel and a Catholic speaker during the meals. On Burns Night—a boisterous, Scottish affair—we toasted the haggis with whiskey and were serenaded by the smooth sounds of bagpipes. I also got up to the Church of Sts. Gregory and Augustine for a few Masses, but would often stop in for prayers since it was on my regular running route (a great excuse for a quick rest). I never made it either, but friends spoke highly of the Ordinariate, for the nostalgic tweed-wearers, and of Greyfriars, for the Cowley-dwellers on the east side of town.
Of course, at one time, every chapel at each of the colleges would have been Catholic, so there could have been thirty or more churches around Oxford were it not for Henry VIII’s licentiousness. As it is, it’s hard to imagine a richer and fuller scene for Catholics. It’s surprising, especially when one considers that Cambridge (simply called “the other placed” by Oxonians) only had one major Catholic Church: Our Lady and the English Martyrs. One can perhaps trace it to Oxford’s Catholic roots, or to the university’s emphasis on excellence in the liberal arts. In the most general terms, Cambridge excels in the sciences, and Oxford in humanities. Still, it seems somewhat miraculous that great minds, and especially authors, of the twentieth century would be concentrated at Oxford: J.R.R. Tolkein, John Henry Newman, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis (okay, so the last one is wishful thinking…).
One the other hand, it is not surprising that a university town in England would produce such riches. In Brideshead Revisited, the agnostic protagonist, Charles Ryder, says that Catholics “seem just like other people,” to which the Catholic Sebastian Flyte responds, “My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not—particularly in this country, where they’re so few.” While Catholic life in Oxford is rich and diverse in one sense, it is still only a small part of the university. There are pockets of faithful evangelicals, but the norm seems to be an Anglicanism that has passed by Jesus and become so broad so as to not mean very much of anything. There are so few who are willing to stand up for the teachings of the Church, and hostility to it so culturally acceptable, that a debate hosted by the pro-life club my first year was shut down by protesters. I was openly mocked in my first tutorial for admitting that I believed in the existence of the soul. It is no wonder that the people who do bother being Catholic are so intense about it. They must be, if they are to endure the pernicious and quotidian forms of persecution that are part of a Catholic’s life at Oxford.
Herein lies the good news. People often say that England is a telling test case for what is going to happen in the United States because it is a few years further down the road to widespread, militant secularism. What has happened to the people in this environment? At least once, in the case of Oxford, it has made them miraculously resilient. From their ranks, apologists have risen to defend the faith, articulately and passionately. This was the prediction that Joseph Ratzinger made in his book, Faith and the Future, originally published in 1970. Pressed in by the forces that oppose us, he stated, the Church will shrink in numbers. In the West, we are seeing that, and some are losing heart. But we, the remnant, may also increase in our faith. In the words of Saint Paul, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (1 Cor. 2:4).
My experience at Oxford gave me great hope for the future of the Church. It helped me to better understand that we need to be taking the secularist threat seriously and to participate in the New Evangelization with holy ambition, and to appreciate that great things can happen when the Church witnesses to the Truth and refuses to go from high to broad.