Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Rite of Michael Napier

Michael Napier joined the Brompton Oratory and was ordained to the priesthood in 1959. Ten years later he was elected to his first of four terms as provost of the London Oratorians and the Church of the Immaculate Conception which they serve. He was instructed in the faith under Msgr. Alfred Gilbey while a student at Cambridge, an arrangement which found itself somewhat returned when Msgr. Gilbey spend his retirement celebrating the old, pre-Pacellian rite of Mass every morning in the St. Wilfrid chapel of the Fr. Napier's parish. Any four-term leader has ample opportunity to shape the life of his community in an enduring fashion, but Napier's impression is so very extensive because his tenure began during the period of liturgical upheaval which wrought the Pauline liturgy. The result was what can only be called the Rite of Michael Napier, a rendition of both the new and old liturgy—Mass and Office—used at the Brompton Oratory.

Solemn Mass at Brompton, a mile down the road from Harrod's, is a great aesthetic pleasure and an illustration that the Pauline Mass can be quite beautiful, even if perhaps not having all the same qualities as the old. What is striking is the degree to which it is modeled after the old Mass.

Discussions of "ars celebrandi", as if celebrating Mass is an art rather than a sacred action, and the "hermeneutic of continuity" dominated the liturgosphere after Benedict XVI's election to the Apostolic See. Benedict's thesis that the new Mass is a natural evolution of the old spurred several different attempts to integrate pieces of pre-Conciliar liturgy into the 1970 Roman Missal: maniples, ad orientem, Latin, plainsong in any language, fiddleback chasubles, the "big six" on the altar, canonical digits, copes for processions, birettas, and anything else that was explicitly tossed out; this writer knows one priest who even began adding the Last Gospel to his new rites Masses.

The main difference between these Benedictine attempts at continuity and the Rite of Michael Napier is that the latter began with the old rite as the presumed model, but accepted the mandate to use the new texts. The result is that the same vestments, altar arrangements, ceremonial movements like the ministers aligning behind each other during the orations, musical selections, the silent Canon (as far as Quam oblationem) and other outwardly characteristic parts of the old liturgy naturally became part of the new. Although it seems like a natural evolution of the liturgy within the context of one specific parish, the decision to assimilate the Novus Ordo into the old outlook had to be a conscientious one given the destructive instincts of the age which brought the reforms to life.

This traditional new rite Mass eased the transition for the faithful accustomed to the old rite and even expanded the Oratory's base congregation. It is second only to Westminster cathedral in congregation size among Catholic churches in London. Today, rather than bridging from the old to the new, the Rite of Michael Napier functions in a semi-reverse fashion, showing traditional pieces of liturgy within the context of prayers and rhythm that the average parish-going Catholic already knows.

credit: John Aron

This last point may prove an issue if the Oratory ever wishes to revert to the old liturgy in the future. The current provost, Fr. Julian Large, is a bona fide traditionalist and has even celebrated the pre-Pacellian rites publicly. Any desire to change the standard Sunday Mass would require the unanimous consent of the Oratory Fathers. It happened in Birmingham; it has not yet happened in Oxford, although I suspect it will eventually.

But this discussion of the Mass does not complete the unique pastiche that is the Rite of Michael Napier, for it includes an Office, too. Their Compline is basically 1967, or so I am told, with the old structure and the reduced choir ceremonies. Vespers, however, follows no particular version of the Breviarium Romanum ever printed. Is it 1962? 1964? Paul VI? Yes, yes, and yes.

During solemn Vespers for Pentecost Sunday this year the Fathers followed the traditional ceremonies for assistants and cantors, their movements, and their intonations of the antiphons. During the incensation at the Magnificat the thurifer and assistant clearly followed the reduced choir observances of 1964's Inter oecumenici, with only the celebrant being incensed by the assistant, and then the thurifer incensing the clergy in three swings to each side. Textually Pentecost Sunday Vespers are not very different in 1962, 1964, and 1664, but the rest of the year can differ radically.

The general strategy for Vespers seems to be to follows 1962 without any commemorations and conform the rite to the Pauline kalendar wherever it may differ. For example, if July 1 falls on Sunday then Vespers will be of the Sunday and not of the Precious Blood. The Mass and Office of Christ the King fall on the last Sunday before Advent rather than on the last Sunday of October. The Advent feria is not commemorated for Vespers of the Immaculate Conception. The Alleluia is banished for Septuagesima season, but the services are celebrated in green until purple appears in the new rite on Ash Wednesday. And in a nod to the older old rite, the Fathers retain Ave Maris Stella as the Vespers hymn for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.

Had I lived in 1975 London, the Brompton Oratory would likely have been my home parish and a place of refuge for one caught in the tempests and tergiversations of destructive worship. Today it may be quite lovely, however the efforts to preserve liturgical orthopraxis have turned in a different direction. Today, the Rite of Michael Napier is less a bridge between the new and old rites and more a unique practice of the Oratory.

Next on the Rad Trad: a review of A.N. Wilson's Unguarded Hours


  1. Oh dear! What would the Fathers say? You have to have a lot of money to live in our parish. Another example of a postulant not accepted into the novitiate: "The Fathers have had their meeting and have decided NOT to accept you. No hurry to go. Tomorrow will do". Fr Ronald Creighton-Jobe once showed me round the old place. One Father was watching TV wearing his biretta. Yeah...

    1. So that is well-done 11:00 A.M Mass of Brompton eh?! Now I Know what really is the "Reform of The Reform".

  2. In the early 1980s Brompton had a sung anaphora using the Solesmes book. Very beautiful it sounded too. It was always EP3 or EP2 and never the Roman Canon in those days. After Fr. Napier's time that went and the Pauline Mass became more '62ish'.

    Michael Napier was a decent man and one whom I misjudged, to my shame. Essentially shy he was rather easy to form the wrong impression of. Abiding memories of are him early one morning when there was torrential rain marshaling the sacristans and anyone around with buckets as water poured in through many places as the church had been recently redecorated but not re-roofed. He was in his element, totally calm and organising things like a militiary operation. Another classic was seeing him at a summer party in shorts which appeared to be WW2 issue with wire hoops at the bases of the legs.

    Fr. Anthony alludes to an unpleasant side to things. The worst was the way a certain provost treated Mgr. Gilbey. One day Mgr. Gilbey had a fall in the apsidal corridor that runs behind the sanctuary between St. Wilfrid's chapel and the sacristy. A friend of mine used to be one of the sacristans and he, along with another friend was the Mgr's server in the last years helped Mgr. Gilbey up and helped him to unvest. My sacristan friend asked if Mgr. Gilbey could have some breakfast in the Refectory to get over his shock but the Provost refused. My two friends took him over to one of eateries on the Brompton Road in disgust. Later when Mgr. Gilbey was evicted from the Traveller's he tried to call in a long time offer made by Michael Napier that there would always be a room at Oratory House if he should need it. When Mgr. Gilbey asked it was a case of 'no room at the inn' by the then provost and Mgr. Gilbey ended up at Nazareth House in Hammersmith which he could not take to and passed away a few months later. Such appalling behaviour, from a rabid hater of the old Roman liturgy and fanatical 1962-ist, would not have happened with Michael Napier nor with the current Provost.

  3. I was told recently that at Griciliano (sp?) Low Masses are said with older customs (e.g., Benedicamos Domino during penitential seasons).
    From what it seems, no one celebrates THE traditional Mass, but variations on it, eh?

  4. Is there any video of this Mass being performed or a missal that discusses how in particular they celebrate the Pauline Use?

  5. The great advantage of the Napier version of the Novus Ordo (NO) is that it shows what Trads can do if the EF is banned again, and so have to rely on using the NO only. It would be good if the Napier version could be publicized more to show how the NO can be celebrated in a decent format. Indeed, if more people had been aware of the Napier version back in '70s, much of the liturgical bitterness of the past 50 years might have been avoided.