The patron of our church, St Wilfrid of York was born in Northumberland in the Seventh Century. At the ripe old age of fourteen, he joined the monastery at Lindisfarne, before travelling to France and Italy. While in Rome, he was instructed more deeply in the faith, and learned Roman practices in ecclesiastical discipline (such as the dating of Easter), rather than the often erroneous practices found in Britain. He then spent three years in Lyons with his friend and mentor St Delphinus, before the latter’s martyrdom. Following this, he returned to Britain, bringing both Roman customs and relics. Alhfrith, son of King Oswi, having heard of his learning, received Wilfrid as an angel from heaven, and encouraged him to instruct the people in ecclesiastical discipline. He was then given land in Ripon, on which he founded a monastery, which became a centre of travelling and almsgiving. It was here that, in 661, he was ordained priest. Alhfrith sent Wilfrid to France to receive episcopal ordination. His prolonged absence had caused Alfrith to install St. Chad as bishop of Northumbria in the meantime. Wilfrid did not contest this, but humbly returned to his monastery in Ripon, from which he exercised episcopal function when required.
At the Synod of Whitby, Wilfrid acted as the primary spokesman for the Roman position, encouraging conformity with the wider Roman church in the aforementioned questions of ecclesiastical discipline. This was an important stage in the Romanisation of the English church.
The election of Chad was eventually found to be irregular, and he was subsequently translated to Lichfield. At the same time, in 669, Wilfrid was translated to the see of York, our own City. As bishop, Wilfrid became renowned for his piety and preaching. He encouraged the use of plainsong in the North, following the encouragements of Gregory the Great, and helped facilitate the growth of monastic life. He became embroiled in political manoeuvring, and was eventually expelled from York by King Egfrid. His appeal to the Pope was successful, but Egfrid ignored this, and imprisoned Wilfrid on his return. He was later exiled, and established a see at Selsey, near Chichester, and converted the people of West Sussex to Christianity. He was restored to York, only to be exiled once more in 691. He then went to Mercia (where he had ministered before), functioning as a missionary bishop in assistance to the king. At a council called by the Pope, Wilfrid was once again marginalised. However, appeal to Rome once more upheld Wilfrid, and he regained his foundations in Ripon and Hexham.
Our church, surprisingly, is the only of York’s many churches dedicated to St Wilfrid. It is the spiritual successor to a mediaeval church, demolished in the sixteenth century, which stood near our own. St Wilfrid is an important part of the Catholic legacy of our City, and is a fitting patron for the Oratory’s church. He reminds us of universality of the practice of our faith. Just as the Oratory looks to Rome as the source of its liturgical practice, St Wilfrid’s insistence on liturgical conformity with Rome, and the wider western church, could be called an early example of Romanitas. Frederick Faber’s first nascent community, which would become the London Oratory, was named after St Wilfrid, and looked to him for inspiration. Although St Wilfrid may have been something of a firebrand, his life demonstrates the importance of preaching and of the instruction of converts – two ministries essential to the charism of the Oratory.