St. Philip Neri Oratory educating record number of seminarians

  • November 19, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - The inconspicuous yet flourishing school is nearly invisible to passersby — housed in a complex of old townhouses, now joined, that take up the length of an entire block in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

But the successful philosophy seminary started in 1989 by the priests of St. Philip Neri Oratory in Toronto is anything but secret. The Oratorians  have seen 100 of their students go on to become priests since 1989 and the momentum only seems to be building.

“There was a certain traditional discipline and spirituality that attracted me and I could tell their study of philosophy was strong,” said Fr. Jason Kuntz, a graduate of the Oratory’s philosophy program who was ordained in the diocese of Hamilton in 2008.

When Kuntz entered the school in 2001 he joined only five other seminarians in the residence. This year the Oratory welcomed a record 23 residents and 24 other students who commute to classes daily. Seminarians studying at the Oratory take the philosophy courses necessary to enter St. Augustine’s Seminary or seminaries in their home dioceses where they go on to complete their priestly education.

But studying at the Oratory, with priests who serve two parishes and perform a handful of community ministries, provided a real-life view into priesthood for Kuntz. The priests are a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but not bound by vows, which means they become diocesan priests if they leave the Oratory’s household. The Oratory and its first congregation were founded by St. Philip Neri in Rome in 1575. The first English Oratories were founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman. The Oratory in Toronto was founded in 1975.

Recently, Kuntz began bringing members of the parish boys club, with a few dads, to see where “men become priests” as a way of encouraging them to think about the vocation of priesthood. He said it is more effective to bring them to the Oratory because student seminarians are usually younger, having just started out, and the youth can better relate to them.  The Oratory also was and continues to be a special treat for his visitors, he said, because it offers an exposure to “the liturgical tradition of the church that you wouldn’t find elsewhere.” But when it came down to his own experience, he highlights the quality of education.

“What I appreciated most was the academics,” Kuntz said. “The program was very much designed for the priesthood and they weren’t just teaching you philosophy for the sake of teaching philosophy.”

This, he said, contrasts with the alternative, which is to take the necessary philosophy courses at a secular university like the University of Toronto.

“It’s hard to find this sort of program that any candidate could get into,” said Fr. Derek Cross, a priest at the Oratory. “And then the philosophy (at University of Toronto) wouldn’t necessarily be directed to the study of theology.”

It was for this reason that in the 1980s Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter asked the Oratorians if they could offer an alternative, especially since many of the Oratorian priests had a strong background in teaching. Now, by Archbishop Thomas Collins’ request, the Oratorians have added a third year of studies to their pre-seminary education program, to be offered to the current second years beginning in 2010.

Fr. Jonathan Robinson, the Oratory’s superior, said although interest in the school seems to have grown, not only for men working towards the diocesan priesthood but priests from the Neocatechumenal Way, the Redemptorists and other orders, there is no secret formula.

“We try to be faithful to St. Philip Neri and to the Oratory. This is work that He wants us to do so we do it and it happens at the moment to be a success and God’s work,” Robinson said. “It’s the most public part of the work we do and I’m not any more proud of that than the fact we run two parishes and our hospital work is done properly but perhaps the reason we do well with the seminary is that we take that other work seriously.”

St. Philip Neri in Toronto is the only Oratory in the world that runs a philosophy school. However, Robinson said despite that, their primary focus is to maintain the Oratorian way of preaching, the administration of sacraments and prayer. They also take confessions very seriously, offering the opportunity to people every day. Spiritual direction, to students and the lay faithful, is another priority.

Then there is the hospital work, the visits to nursing homes, visits to the three schools associated with their two parishes of Holy Family and St. Vincent de Paul.

“Our seminarians volunteer at these places on their day off from class,” Cross explained. “We give them a realistic view of what parish life is like. You’re not in a large castle somewhere removed from the centre of the city but you’re actually right down in a poor section of Toronto, so they are much more experienced than if they were in a scholastic program purely.”

See the Oratory’s web site at .

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.