Mary Coredemptrix in the Writings of Frederick William Faber

Frederick William Faber was born in Calverly in the English County of Yorkshire on the 28th of June 1814. He was born in the vicarage of his grandfather, who was the Anglican Vicar of Calverly, (1) and his early formation was strongly marked by the ethos of the Church of England. Another significant influence on his developing personality was the Lake District where his early education continued. (2) It awakened his strong poetic orientation and equipped him to appreciate the works of the Lake poets, especially William Wordsworth (1770-1850). (3) He continued his education at Harrow, subsequently matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford in 1832 and became a fellow of University College there in 1837. (4) His practice of Anglicanism had first a Calvinist and subsequently an Evangelical orientation. Preceding and after his ordination as priest of the Church of England in Oxford in 1839 he became successively more involved in the Tractarian Party which came to be known as the Oxford Movement. (5)

It was during these years that he came under the influence of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one of the principals of the Oxford Movement, and eventually followed him into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. He was ordained a Catholic priest by Nicholas Wiseman in 1847 and together with the majority of a little community which he had founded called Brothers of the Will of God he joined the Birmingham Oratory, of which Newman was superior, in 1848. (6) In 1849 he founded the London Oratory and the following year it became independent of Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham. (7)

There were strong temperamental differences between Newman and Faber and early on it became apparent that Faber’s attraction to Newman was never totally reciprocated. (8) Newman was more reserved in the expression of his sentiments and as a Catholic sided with the “old Catholics” who had remained loyal to the Church during the persecutions and the penal days. They were not given to much external display or affective expression in the practice of their faith. (9) Faber, on the other hand, was much more an extrovert and very drawn to the practices of continental Catholicism, especially those of France and Italy. (10) He did much to promote Catholic popular devotional practices among the people of London and was greatly appreciated as a preacher and teacher of the spiritual life. Unfortunately, for a variety of complex reasons there was always a certain tension between Newman and Faber, the Birmingham and the London Oratories. (11)

Historians of nineteenth century English Catholicism have often written of Newman’s superior genius and of Faber’s sentimentalism, dismissing Faber as a minor figure whose works represent a dated form of Victorian triumphalism. The fact is that Faber had a truly remarkable, almost encyclopedic knowledge of classical Catholic theologians and spiritual writers. He was familiar with the works of Blessed John Duns Scotus, for example, and fully embraced the Scotist position on the motive of the Incarnation. (12) He likewise had imbibed deeply from the writings of the seventeenth century French School of spirituality (13) and proved himself remarkably adept at sharing the riches he had absorbed not only with the vast throngs of mid-19th century Londoners who came to hear him preach but with all those who have read him in English and in translation from his day to ours. (14) Indeed, it is claimed with reason that “Faber may be regarded as a champion of spirituality for the layman at a time when such champions were few and far between.” (15)

A. Faber’s Marian Devotion

Now a word must be said about Faber’s fervent devotion to Our Lady. Whence did it come? He surely didn’t take it in with his mother’s milk nor did he find it in his grandfather’s parsonage nor was it an element in his formative years. It would seem that he slowly came to recognize it as a constituent element of Catholicism as he traveled, while still an Anglican, in Catholic countries. One notes, for instance, the profound impression which he recorded in his journal for 1 July, 1841, regarding his visit to the great Austrian Marian Shrine of Mariazell. (16) His attachment to Our Lady developed as he grew in his conviction that he must enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. On 28 November, 1844, we find him writing to Newman, under whose direction he had put himself, asking him to “revoke your prohibition, laid on me last October year, of invoking our Blessed Lady, the Saints, and Angels.” (17)

As a new convert, Faber, who had already read the lives of many Catholic saints and was keenly aware of the role that Mary had played in their lives, consciously committed himself to growing in and diffusing the love of Mary. (18) He and his companion, William Antony Hutchison, later a priest of the London Oratory, visited the Shrine of the Holy House of Loreto on 30 March, 1846. (19) On Easter Tuesday he wrote to his friend J. B. Morris regarding that pilgrimage that I hardly dare say what happened to me there. It is enough to say that I asked a great thing of our dearest Lady in the Santa Casa, and she got it for me in ten minutes and I quite burn with love to her. (20)

In fact on 5 August of that same year he wrote to the same correspondent:

As to the word Mariolatry, all I meant to say was, that we spent all our time in teaching people what we were not to do to Mary, instead of pushing forward the ardent worship of her, as we ought to do…. In good truth it is odd that I should go to Loreto to beg devotion to our dear Lady, and that afterwards in two solemn communions I should have vowed my life, health, strength, intellect and senses to be her slave and to spread her devotion, in great measure because I feared converts relapsing from want of that gran segno di predestinazione; and then that it should be thought that I was like one who never “warmed,” as a bishop expressed it to me, to Mary; and whose fall is considered to be owing to that. (21)

Clearly Faber’s consecration to Mary at Loreto would bear abundant fruit during his brief but intense life as a Catholic priest from 1847 to 1863. Indeed, he made no apologies and lost no time in spreading her devotion, even if his importing of continental devotional practices evoked no little suspicion on the part of the “old Catholics” and Protestants in the London of the 1850s. “There were, of course, many pictures of Our Lady in Catholic chapels but only one statue in a public place, that at St. Mary’s Chelsea” reports Ronald Chapman of those days. “To decorate a Lady altar