Holy Family Church in west end Toronto, where the Oratorians of the Toronto Oratory are celebrating 45 years. Photo from Wikipedia

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Newman’s spirit alive at Toronto’s Oratory

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  • October 29, 2020

Earlier this year I wrote an appreciation here of the late Fr. Jonathan Robinson, who established the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Montreal in 1975 and transferred it to Toronto in 1979. Last month, I wrote about the 175th anniversary of the conversion of St. John Henry Newman on Oct. 9, 1845, which is now his feast day.

This month I wish to unite the two, Newman and the Oratory. On Nov. 1, the solemn feast of All Saints, the Toronto Oratory celebrates its 45th anniversary, a suitable occasion to reflect on how the Oratory of St. Philip Neri makes Newman’s presence come alive in Toronto.

In North America we tend to think about Newman in relation to university chaplaincies, given the number that are named after him. Indeed, it is not unusual to hear some ask for the “Newman Centre” instead of the “Catholic chaplaincy.”

Newman had been given the mission of founding a Catholic university in Ireland. That did not meet with the success hoped for, but it did produce the magnificent book The Idea of a University, still read today, a repository of wisdom about the formation of young minds — and characters.

Newman himself did not live an academic life after his conversion 175 years ago, but chose instead to bring the Oratorian way of life, founded by St. Philip Neri in 16th-century Rome, to England. He established the first English Oratory in Birmingham, which later gave rise to the more famous Brompton Oratory in London.

St. Philip — called the “second apostle of Rome” after Peter and Paul — initiated a new approach to evangelizing the corrupted Catholic culture of Rome. He gathered a small group around himself and evangelized on that personal scale, inviting youth to picnics that became pilgrimages, to fellowship that became formation, and to a life together that expressed itself in liturgical beauty.

Newman brought that spirit and method of St. Philip to England. Fr. Robinson would bring that to Canada, building his Oratory on the English model. He began in Montreal with a small group of young men who would gather for dinner, read a Newman sermon and then have a spiritual discussion inspired by it. This would eventually develop into the “Little Oratory” gatherings which St. Philip had pioneered four centuries earlier.

“St. Philip preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt,” Newman wrote of Philip’s evangelical approach in The Idea of a University.

For that reason, my friend Fr. Roger Landry proposes that St. Philip Neri be designated the “patron saint of the new evangelization.” We have much to learn from his methods. Those methods have been put into good effect by the Toronto Oratory in Parkdale.

“St. Philip inspired a missionary spirit among the laity,” according to Fr. Landry. “He formed lay men and women so that they could go out and evangelize others and transform culture and society. They would read together St. Francis Xavier’s letters from India and resolve to make Rome ‘their Indies’ and win it back for Christ.”

Fr. Landry knows something about the Toronto Oratory; he studied philosophy there in the 1990s as a seminarian. I too studied philosophy there after he did.

Running a seminary is not what Oratories usually do; Toronto is the only one that does, which they call St. Philip’s. Given that the seminary buildings are ordinary neighbourhood houses, many people do not even know that there is a seminary on King Street West. But over 25 years, hundreds of priests have received their formation there. For me, it was decisive in all that has followed.

Indeed, with two years at St. Philip’s in Toronto, five years in Rome where I passed by St. Philip’s tomb often and frequently stopped to pray there, and now 17 years at Newman House in Kingston, my entire priestly preparation and priesthood has been under the long and benign shadow of St. Philip and St. John Henry.

It is possible to think that Newman would have found the Toronto Oratory innovation of operating a seminary to be congenial. His early adult life was shaped by an Oxonian academic life very much associated with (Anglican) clerical formation; in his post-conversion life he promoted the necessity of Catholic theological engagement with the ambient intellectual culture. To combine both in the formation of Catholic priests would have appealed to him, I would like to think.

The Toronto Oratory now has a new superior, Fr. Paul Pearson, who served as dean of the seminary for 30 years. As a new chapter in the life of the Oratory begins, accompanied by the newly-canonized St. John Henry, Catholics in Toronto have reasons to give thanks for the Oratory in their midst.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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