Obituary: The Rev Michael Napier

Kit Cunningham
Friday 06 September 1996 23:02

Napier is a name well known to those who have studied the Peninsular Wars of the 19th century. It is essentially a military name, and one that befitted Father Michael Napier, former Provost of the London Oratory and Apostolic Visitor for Rome to the 63 Oratories dotted round the world.

The Fathers of the Oratory are a distinctive group in the Catholic Church because they are not religious but secular priests who live in a community. They make no vows, but have a three-year novitiate, when they express an intention of stability. This concept was formulated by St Philip Neri in the 16th century. He formed a community round him, based on prayer and devotion to the liturgical life of the Church.

This included music, and that is why the London Oratory has such a rich musical tradition. St Philip Neri was the patron of Palestrina, and the Spanish composer Vittoria was a member of the Roman Oratory. Oratories vary in spirit. Brompton is certainly more Roman in the spirit of the hymnwriter Fr Faber, while Birmingham, dominated by Newman, is more English.

Michael Napier was ordained in 1959, and was elected Provost in 1969. Such were his powers of leadership that he was to be re-elected four times, and he ruled with firmness and a sound administrative sense. His period as Provost was a time of great change in the Church, particularly in the Liturgy. The musical tradition was maintained, the altar was left alone, although in all other matters there was acceptance of change.

Napier set an example of how the new liturgy could be grafted on the old. His concern was that the Church lose nothing of its essential message, and since this is conveyed through liturgy, he insisted on fidelity to the liturgical law of the Church and not to supposed interpretations by individuals. The devotion to the Mass at the Oratory is a sign of the great work he has done.

The famous generals bearing the name of Napier were Charles, George and William, the three sons of Lady Sarah Napier, daughter of the Duke of Richmond. The family seat was outside Dublin, and gives further force to the argument that the best generals in the British army were all of Irish origin. There is a statue in Trafalgar Square to Charles Napier, and Sir William wrote the history of the Peninsular Wars in six volumes.

Michael Napier's father, Major-General Charles Napier, served in the Royal Engineers, and was a backroom boy in charge of movement control, especially for the D-Day operations. He was to die young at the age of 47, when his only son was 17. He was not a Catholic, but Michael's mother, who was of French origin, was a convert. An only child, Michael was educated at Wellington, and Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

It was at Cambridge that he began his instruction to be a Catholic, under Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, and he used to say that he was "polished off by 'Zulu' " (for the uninitiated, Canon de Zulueta at the Holy Redeemer, Chelsea). He was received into the Church in October 1952, worked in the City for a year, and then entered the London Oratory in 1953.

In 1982 Napier gave up as Superior at the Oratory and began organising a great appeal for pounds 1m to renovate the Oratory and conserve the musical tradition. He was impressive in his success.

He also served for many years as chairman of the governors of the London Oratory School. He was President of the British section of Aid to the Church in Need, a charity principally for the relief of Catholics in Eastern Europe, and was a chaplain of the Order of Malta and the Constantian Order of St George.

To some, Fr Michael Napier might have seemed stern and aloof, but there was a quiet charm about the man. There was even a boyish- ness about him, and a loyalty to his brethren and his parishioners.

If Brompton Oratory has the position it has in London today, this is in great part due to Michael Napier. His community knew his worth by re-electing him four times. As Apostolic visitor, the Oratorians world-wide knew his value - a devoted man, dedicated to the ideals of his mentor, St Philip Neri.

Kit Cunningham

Michael Scott Napier, priest: born 15 February 1929; ordained priest 1959; Superior of the London Oratory 1969-81; died London 22 August 1996.

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