Oxford on a misty, beautiful, autumn day, with golden leaves fluttering down along the banks of the Isis, cyclists weaving their way through the streets. The view across Christchurch meadow, the beauty of the different college buildings – Keble with that fancy brickwork that always makes me think of a Fair Isle knitting pattern, Balliol, Oriel, grey and white against the autumn sky.
I was there to meet members of a youth drama group, which earlier this year presented a play about Blessed John Paul, written by Leonie Caldecott. The play was presented at the university’s Catholic chaplaincy, and the drama group is loosely connected with the Oxford Oratory, the Church of St Aloysius along the Woodstock Road. The plan is that some of the team will come to London next weekend to be part of the Towards Advent Festival at Westminster Cathedral Hall. They’ll talk about the play, and show excerpts from a DVD of EWTN’s programme about it all. They’ll explain how they were inspired by JPII and the message he brought to the young.
The Towards Advent Festival has been running annually for over ten years now. It brings together a wide range of groups and organisations in the life of the Church in Britain – charities helping people at home and overseas, long-established groups such as the Knights of St Columba and the Catenians, and newer ones such as pro-life groups. The special guest speaker this year will be Mgr Keith Newton of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, who will speak on “Joy and Hope in the Church”. The Festival will be opened by the Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, and there will be music from the Gallery Choir of the Cathedral Choir School. The young people’s presentation on Blessed John Paul will round off the day. Some of the group, as children, took part in the very first Towards Advent Festival.
Oxford’s long, long association with the Catholic faith goes back into the mists of history. People in this great university city were praying and celebrating Mass here well before the period we now call the Middle Ages. When John Henry Newman preached in the University Church, Oxford’s Christianity was already of ancient duration. When I dropped in the Oratory briefly en route to a coffee-shop for my meeting, I was conscious of new chapters of history being written. This Oratory fulfils a long-cherished hope and plan of Newman’s that was not realised in his lifetime. Funds are currently being raised to create a Newman shrine here. The parish is a large and thriving one and I have often been here for beautiful Christmas Masses and glorious Easter Vigils.
There is something solemn about Oxford in November – you are conscious of long lists of names on college war memorials, and of solemn memories. So much of Britain’s history has passed along these streets and past these walls and along the banks of this river.