Out while it was still dark, to catch the first bus to Oxford. Spent an unforgettable morning at the Oxford Oratory, in the presence of the relics of St Therese. The long tail-back of commuter traffic delayed the journey somewhat, but I managed to arrive for the Sung Mass in the Extraordinary Form just as the priest was giving his homily.
The church was full for the Mass, with many standing at the back and in the side aisles. All generations were present. I imagine that for some of the congregation it must have been the first experience of the older form of the Mass for many decades, perhaps in their lives.
After the Mass the pews emptied a little, providing space for the comings and goings of parties of schoolchildren and other groups. Stayed for most of the morning; read some chapters of Matthew; said my usual prayers; prayed also, and left a prayer request, for all in the Catholic blogosphere, for themselves and all who read them to grow ever closer to God.
In the background, at all times, a quiet hum and bustle of people. In the midst of the sublime occasion I felt there was a sweet-natured, almost domestic atmosphere. A communal Rosary; a young man behind me saying his prayers, just audibly,in Polish; visiting priests hearing confessions by the side altars; the procession of those wishing to go to the reliquary very well organised and smooth, with no one getting in anyone else’s way; plenty of space to see it, and to stop before it for a few moments of prayer or contemplation; no one was rushed away from it. There were rose petals on the floor everywhere, mostly along the central aisle. And, as the principal guest in the House of God, the sense of the presence of St Therese; the beautiful reliquary seeming more than itself. In outward appearance the experience was a stylised version of being at the grave of a great heroine; but “to God, all men are in fact alive”, and it really did feel as if she was there among us.
I went to the reliquary three times, and was surprised each time to find myself in tears; but happy tears. I will always remember it.
Towards the end of the morning I left the church, to get a cup of tea and a lunch-time sandwich, and to catch the bus home. There was a substantial queue along the busy Woodstock Road, moving along at a steady pace and allowed into the church in batches. A cheerful Oratory father, armed with a megaphone, was doing sterling work keeping everyone informed. This controlled access helped to preserve the sense of the occasion: the interior of the church remained uncrowded, and the gentle spirituality of the great and solemn day was maintained.
The Anglican church of St Giles, across the street, was sharing in the festivities by serving refreshments, and very nice they were too. Saw Fr Damian there; he is a Benedictine of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, who regularly offers Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Fr Hunwicke, of the Anglo-Catholic church of St Thomas the Martyr in Oxford, whose blog I like to visit, has described being present at the event. This sharing of the joy has been an extra element in the happiness of the day.
I hope those of you who have not been able to attend any of the stages of St Therese’s wonderful progress through our dear but troubled country, have received from this account some flavour of the tremendous experience it has been for just one person.