Nineteenth-century England was the setting and mirror of significant ideological, material and religious transformations that in the subsequent centuries spread to other nations in Europe and, to a large extent, worldwide.
From the ideological point of view, the winds of the French Revolution – whose testing ground was the favourite English colony, the United States – blew strongly in the British Isles, and the aspirations for absolute equality and complete freedom demanded from society a different behaviour, less decorous and solemn, in which the inordinate passions of pride and sensuality were granted the right of citizenship.
As for the material field, we need look no further than the Industrial Revolution, born in the burgeoning regions of London in those years and which generated a new lifestyle, through man’s daily contact with machines, affecting the very depths of the human soul.
However, more serious was the situation in the religious sphere. Already shaken by a series of fluctuations between Protestant innovations and Catholic traditions since the 16th century, the Anglican Church would undergo a new phenomenon, being the target of quarrels and controversies of all sorts – theological, canonical and liturgical – on the part of different groups that fought for power and influence within it.
The winds of grace begin to blow
In this historical context, something called the high church movement1 arose – the majority of whose members belonged to Oxford University – with the aim of demonstrating that the Anglican Church was a direct descendant of the Church established by the Apostles; that is to say, an attempt was being made to bridge the abyss that separated the schismatic Church of England from the true Roman Church.
Indeed, the winds of grace began to blow among a certain portion of Anglo-Catholics,2 for, baptized souls that they were, they cried out for help and asked the Shepherd to come to the aid of the lost sheep of the fold.
Starting there, from the clay soil of the Anglican Church, lilies of virtue and holiness would begin to sprout which, when transplanted into the grounds of the Catholic Church, would enrich the garden of the Saints with their fruits.
The biographical portrait of the life of a former Protestant pastor, converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845, together with his thought and excellent works on the spiritual life, will serve as an example for us.
An exceptional intelligence formed in Protestant circles
Born in Calverley, West Yorkshire, England, on June 28, 1814, Frederick William Faber’s childhood was strongly marked by religious misconceptions; his grandfather, Thomas Faber, was a parish vicar, and his uncle, George Faber, was a theologian and writer.
From primary school onwards, Faber studied at prestigious colleges. His extraordinary intellectual capacity began to garner honours when, after obtaining a scholarship to University College, part of Oxford University, a literary composition of his on the Knights of St. John’s aroused the admiration not only of his peers, but also of the professors, who discerned promising qualities the young man of little more than twenty years, and they subsequently appointed him a member of the faculty.
His regular presence in Oxford’s academic circles provided him with first-hand knowledge of the liturgy-based ideology of the newly formed Anglo-Catholic Movement, which proposed closer ties with the Catholic Church, so contrary to many of the principles he had learned in childhood, since he was a descendant of Huguenots and had forged his character amidst Calvinist beliefs, rigorously followed by his parents and relatives.
His interior struggle began: Faber began to notice the differences between what he had heard as a child through those around him and the truths learned from those who claimed to find in the Catholic Church, even though they were still schismatics, the only source of orthodoxy.
The path of conversion
In this period of his life, already well aware of the trials that Cardinal John Henry Newman, the main proponent of the Oxford Movement and his important mentor, was undergoing, Faber decided to abandon the Calvinist views of his youth and became a fervent Anglo-Catholic.
In 1839 he was ordained according to the invalid rite of the schismatic Church of England; later, in 1843, he accepted the post of rector of a church in Elton, which led him to undertake a journey to Rome to better instruct himself in pastoral duties and, guided by Providence, to come into contact with the source of truth.
The journey of his conversion began. Faber was enchanted with the Liturgy and Catholic practices and, upon his return to England, introduced some of these customs to Elton, such as devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the commemoration of feasts of the Saints, despite the presence of Methodists in his parish.
His baptized soul, still imprisoned in the ruins of that cold faith which the Anglicans claimed to profess, but, in ever closer contact with Henry Newman and the Catholic Church, was gradually able to free itself. Finally, Faber left Elton and officially entered Catholicism.
Accompanied by some members of his parish, in 1845 he was received into the Catholic Church by Bishop William Wareing of Northampton. The new converts settled in Birmingham, where they organized a sort of religious community in which Catholic practices and a life of piety prevailed. Faber’s zeal led to the erection, within a few months, of a new church in honour of St. Wilfrid – his patron Saint – designed by the distinguished architect Pugin.
His best qualities would flourish at that juncture in his life, for the efforts he had expended in the construction of the church, together with the pains and struggles of his apostolic endeavours, would testify to his virtuous personality and total dedication to the faithful.
A bond with the Mother of God
Broken by his labours, an illness brought him to the brink of death. But in those circumstances Faber would find the anchor for his entire life: Our Lady. During the course of his illness, he developed a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin, entrusting to Her his destiny, which yet held in store for him a goodly distance to tread.
As we shall see, as a result of this filial bond established between Mother and son, a part of Christendom was afforded the distribution of a famous book that would mark Marian devotion forever.
In the meantime, after receiving the Anointing of the Sick, Faber regained his health and in the following months he eagerly resumed his apostolic work, which culminated in his ordination as a Catholic priest. He was able to celebrate his first Mass on April 4, 1847.
At the head of the Oratory, his apostolic labours increase
After much toil to establish a new community, this time in the English capital, on the recommendation of Cardinal Newman himself, Faber was elected on October 11, 1850, the feast of St. Wilfrid, as the first rector of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London, a post he would hold until his death.
His thirteen years at the head of this house of the institute, which was exempt from the canonical forms proposed by Church legislation at the time, allowed him great flexibility in his apostolate. First, because the Oratorians had very singular rules, which detailed few aspects of common life, entrusting the most essential elements of formation to verbal transmission. Secondly, because this allowed him to pursue various evangelizing initiatives, among them, community life permeated with external activities, liturgical ceremonies in chapels or churches, and the diffusion of literary works.
Faber left many writings, revealing his keen psychological sense and his penetrating insight into the human soul; at the same time, he interwove theological explanations with illustrative and striking examples, capable of moving the will to pursue the practice of virtue.
From the body of work he bequeathed, his liturgical hymns make up a significant expression of a soul devoted to God and imbued with supernatural fervour, as the famous Faith of our Fathers expresses so well! In this hymn, Fr. Faber does not forget Our Lady when he exclaims: “Mary’s prayers shall win our country back to Thee [Lord]: And through the truth that comes from God, England shall then indeed be free.”
After a life marked by untiring zeal for the spiritual formation of the faithful and the revitalization of liturgical worship, as well as fervent longing for his nation’s conversion to the Catholic Church, Fr. Faber gave up his soul to God on November 26, 1863.
In the dozens of hymns and books he composed, together with the innumerable pamphlets and translations, the militant piety of this distinguished Englishman has remained impressed for posterity. Having thoroughly understood the ills of his people, he was, in the course of time, enveloped in the fog of human oblivion, but not of God’s.
Nevertheless, his writings continued their course, doing good for souls; we can only imagine how many owe him the favour of good advice, a timely word and the encouragement so necessary in the struggle of every Christian in this vale of tears.
Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira rightly referred to Fr. Faber, on different occasions, as a “very great man,” “an ultramontane of the 19th century,” a “great theologian” and a man who “fought splendidly against Protestantism and was a great proponent of the work of St. Louis Grignion de Montfort.”
Disseminator of the treatise of “True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin”
In fact, in the mid-1850s, on coming into contact for the first time with the life of the great Breton, not even beatified at the time, Fr. Faber soon discerned that he was a man with a prophetic air, a “missionary of the Holy Ghost,”3 whose particular traits of soul were reflected in the pages of the recently discovered treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, of which he soon became not only an undisputed admirer, but above all its translator and disseminator.4
He had the merit of making the French Saint’s masterpiece available to a specific group of European faithful through its translation into English. He commented on it as follows in his preface in 1862: “I have translated the whole treatise myself, and have taken great pains with it, and have been scrupulously faithful […]. If I may dare to say so, there is a growing feeling of something inspired and supernatural about it, as we go on studying it; and with that we cannot help experiencing, after repeated readings of it, that its novelty never seems to wear off, nor its fullness to be diminished, nor the fresh fragrance and sensible fire of its unction ever to abate.”5
In this way, Fr. Faber was able to repay the Mother of God for the favours he had received from Her when, on the verge of death, he had a foretaste of her singular mercy. He said of Our Lady: “Mary is kept in the background. Thousands of souls perish because Mary is withheld from them. […] Yet, if we are to believe the revelations of the Saints, God is pressing for a greater, a wider, a stronger, quite another devotion to His Blessed Mother.”6
Untiring zeal in combatting the evils of his time
In addition to his profound veneration for Our Lady, the combative character of this English theologian impelled him to point out, with his perceptive and meticulous pen, the evils that beset his nation and, as far as possible, to remedy those misfortunes.
As for the revolutionary materialism and naturalism of England in the middle part of the 19th century, Father Faber combatted them by preaching that God and the soul – man’s very being in the spiritual realm – constitute that which is truly real, since they possess an inestimable intrinsic value.
Thus, “naturalism is impatient of godliness, because it has no taste for God. […] Under the auspices of naturalism, spirituality tends to become a mere literature to intellectual curiosity, or a mere pleasurable excitement to un-earnest or half-hearted devotion, or a relish to worldliness by way of contrast.”7
In this way, he made it difficult for those who would seek the death of the supernatural in man’s spiritual goals to do them this disservice.
In opposition to the smokescreen of the Industrial Revolution, which was already blinding masses of souls through pragmatism, Fr. Faber found no more effective outlet than to proclaim to people that the only real purpose of this life is to maintain the condition of children of God and to accept that there is a life post-mortem.
Therefore, his exhortation is most fitting: “Were they the last words I might ever say to you, nothing should I wish to say to you with more emphasis than this, that next to the thought of the Precious Blood, there is no thought in all your faith more precious or more needful for you than the thought of eternal punishment.”8
According to the fact that no two persons are entirely and perfectly alike, “God saw a specialty in us eternally. It was this specialty which He loved. It is this specialty which decides our place and our work in His creation.”9 Beyond the benefits provided by his writing and preaching ,Fr. Faber, through the trajectory of his life, had the task of outlining a spiritual itinerary capable of curing contemporary England of its insular and sad individualism, immersed in a kind of inauthentic comfort, by proclaiming: come out of yourselves, turn towards others, choose to be kind! Hence, he affirmed that “kindness is the overflowing of self upon others. We put others in the place of self. We treat them as we should wish to be treated ourselves.”10
Faber’s apostolic labours at the head of the Oratory and the good he did for those subordinate to him, along with the expansion of the Oxford Movement and the excellent spiritual conversions that came from it, gave the British Isles a new impetus of grace.
These reasons lead us to presume that, considering his moral and intellectual qualities, the epilogue of the life of this director of souls and Marian theologian is well expressed in Dr. Plinio’s words: “Fr. Faber is full of ardent zeal for the Church!” ◊
1 Due to the various definitions possible for the term high church, some being even historically distinct according to the Anglican Church’s thinking, we emphasize that this article refers exclusively to the tendency of a certain number of adherents of Anglicanism to associate their churches, in their practices and rituals, with Roman Catholicism, perhaps in a sincere attempt at conversion. This tendency generated internal doctrinal dissensions in the Anglican Church, and was the reason for not a few conversions of Englishmen to the Catholic Church. St. John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey and Chesterton are eminent examples of this. The opposite of the high church is the low church, that is to say, less traditional and more alienated from Rome.
2 The term Anglo-Catholic encompasses people, groups, ideas, customs and practices of the Anglican communion that emphasise continuity with the Catholic tradition, although the divergence from Roman Catholicism remains regarding the power and influence of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
3 FABER, CO, Frederick William. Preface. In: ST. LOUIS-MARIE GRIGNION DE MONFORT. True Devotion to Mary. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1985, p. xix.
4 During the French Revolution, St. Louis de Montfort’s manuscript was locked in a chest and hidden in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre, in a field near the chapel, where it remained forgotten until April 29, 1842, when a missionary of the Society of Mary found it among other old books.
5 FABER, op. cit., p. xxii.
7 FABER, CO, Frederick William. Spiritual Conferences. Philadelphia: Peter Reilly, 1957, p.294-295.
8 FABER, CO, Frederick William, apud BOWDEN, CO, John Edward. The Life and Letters of Frederick William Faber. London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1869, p.503.
9 FABER, Spiritual Conferences, op. cit., p.332.
10 Idem, p.12.