A Vocation to the Toronto Oratory?

The Oratorian community in Toronto began life in Montreal in the early 1970s, where the Oratory came officially into being in 1975, before the invitation of Cardinal Carter brought us to Toronto in 1979.

Our founder, Fr Jonathan Robinson, ordained in Rome in 1962, was subsequently appointed secretary to Cardinal Leger. Afterwards, combining priestly work with teaching philosophy at McGill (where he was for a period Chairman of the Department), Fr Robinson began the experiment of living in community according to the rule and inspiration of the Oratory of St Philip Neri (1515-1595).

From its numerically modest beginnings in Montreal, the Toronto Oratory has grown steadily to its present fourteen members (including eleven priests and two in priestly formation), making it the largest of the dozen or so English-speaking Oratories worldwide.

The Oratorian Dialectic of Person and Community

The interpretation of Oratorian life developed by Blessed John Henry Newman has been an important influence on the Toronto Oratory. Above all, perhaps, this interpretation emphasizes the dialectic of person and community.

It was St Philip's object, Newman wrote, instead of imposing laws on his disciples, to mould them, as far as might be, into living laws, or, in the words of Scripture, to write the law on their hearts. Imposing a law creates uniformity; but if the law unfolds from within, no two people will live it in precisely the same way.

Taking up the words of another Oratorian (Fr Sozzini, Provost of the Roman Oratory two generations after St Philip's death), Newman stressed how, since our Congregation is not bound by religious vows, a holy liberty of spirit should shine among us. This liberty of spirit requires a principle of regulation which is irreducibly personal: the dependence of each, as Newman put it, upon his own resources.

Developing the point (in his reflections on the challenges of writing hagiography - specifically, a life of St Philip himself), Newman spoke of the need to see the saints, not as abstract compendia of virtues and edifying examples, but as living and breathing men, as persons invested with personal attributes and a character of their own, and peculiarities of habit and feeling and opinion such as belong to [one] and not to another…The lights and shades of the saintly character, of the individual saint are necessary for understanding what a Saint is. This attunement to individuality, to difference, is an essential aspect of the Oratorian vocation.

As a consequence, an Oratorian has to learn the arts of solitude: not as the mere deprivation of company or obligation, but as something creative and fertile. Aside from the domestic rhythms of the life and our pastoral work, our time can often be undetermined except by ourselves. There is always much to do, but no rule or plan designed to 'keep us busy'. Temperaments, and responsibilities, vary of course, but each member of the community needs to know, or to learn, how to be with himself in the pursuit of his own interests and affinities. As Newman expressed it, St Philip wished his children, individually and in private, to cultivate all their gifts to the full.

At the same time, not individuality or difference as such but charity is the perfecting principle of Oratorian life. It is in community life that the Oratorian encounters his most characteristic and healing ascesis. Oratorians, according to Newman, do not seek sanctification through poverty, fasting, external observances, and vows, or through stipulations, or rights, or engagements, but in the real and inward love of member for member, and a watchful and prompt observance and evasion of all the small hindrances which are likely to interrupt the equable course of the day.

What does this love concretely consist in? Newman mentions such qualities as consideration, delicacy, elasticity of mind … knowledge of character [and] tact. For the Oratorian, then, it is in trying to allow his individuality (Fr Sozzini's liberty of spirit) to be informed with virtues such as these that charity - the love of God and of one another - is expressed and developed.

Each member, Newman says, should give his confidence to the community itself, and to each other individually, with a direct act of will and … consciousness of what we are doing. This personal act of will and … consciousness, for Newman, is the daily 'consecration' in which Oratorian life, and Oratorian perfection, consists.

What forms does life at the Toronto Oratory take? Here we can distinguish between what might be called the 'domestic' and 'pastoral' life of the community.

Domestic Life

At the heart of our domestic life are two periods of prayer, called morning and evening 'oratory', each lasting half an hour, in which the whole community comes together to pray silently and also (in the evening) vocally.

From the beginning, both practising and reflecting upon the classical forms of Christian spirituality, especially meditation, have been essential to forming and maintaining our sense of ourselves as Oratorians: St Philip, after all, insisted that above all his houses be houses of prayer. The habit of prayer, and of thinking and speaking about prayer, has also been essential to our pastoral vocation: to our hearing confessions, spiritual direction, preaching and teaching. Retrieving and communicating the riches of Catholic spirituality - knowing something of what prayer is and can be, why it matters, and above all learning to practise it perseveringly - is accordingly an essential strand in our understanding of the unity and purpose of Oratorian life.

Meals (except breakfast, taken individually, in silence and ad libitum) are communal. At lunch we talk, but dinner (following evening oratory) is in silence, with reading and service at table, after the monastic pattern; afterwards there is a period of recreation in which the whole community joins. Recreation and lunch are the occasions each day when the community comes together socially, the complement, as it were, to the gathering for prayer at morning and evening oratory. Conversation between members of the community of course takes place throughout the day, but the times when the community as a whole comes together have a special significance.

Pastoral Life

Parochial Work

The pastoral work of the community centres on our two parishes: Holy Family (of which we have had care since 1979) and, adjacent to it, St Vincent de Paul (under our care since 1995). Economically, socially, and culturally they are very different parishes. Together they ensure that our pastoral vocation (centred on preaching, hearing confessions, the celebration of the sacraments and spiritual direction) is exercised amidst all the human diversity and complexity that can characterize contemporary metropolitan living.

The way of St Philip engenders a particular style of pastoral care. There are Saints, Newman wrote, whose mission lies … in separating off from each other the world and the Truth; that of other Saints lies in bringing them together. Philip's was the latter … Nothing was too high for him, nothing too low, Newman continued, since it was [Philip's] mission to save men, not from, but in, the world … [He] carried out the Church into the world, and aimed to bring under her light yoke as many men as [he] could possibly reach. Quoting an early Life of the saint, Newman emphasized how Philip could not endure harsh rebukes, or anything like rigour. He allured men to the service of God so dextrously, and with such a holy, winning, art, that those who saw it cried out, astonished: 'Father Philip draws souls as a magnet draws iron'.

Part of that holy, winning art, which was identified from the beginning as an important element in St Philip's mission, consists in exploring and communicating the theological, spiritual and cultural richness of the liturgy, and especially of the Mass. It is obvious that this cannot be everything; but it is certainly a great deal. At the Toronto Oratory, whether in the newer or older forms of the Roman rite (which together constitute the ordinary pattern taken by our celebrations of Mass, publicly and privately, day by day) we strive to let the richness of the liturgy speak, in the context of the characteristically Oratorian spirituality that Newman describes: interior religion, a jealousy of ceremonies … obedience … mental discipline rather than fasting or hair-shirt … that illumination and freedom of spirit which comes of love … a mild and tender rule for the Confessional; frequent confessions, frequent communions [and] special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

In addition to pastoral work in schools (there is one in each of our parishes), as well as in hospitals and nursing homes, the Toronto Oratory has always placed singular emphasis on the importance of both confession and spiritual direction, not just in our own lives but for all the faithful. St Philip's special tone, his most characteristic handling of Christian truth, is perhaps especially manifest in these patient and secluded, persevering and personally-centred ways of learning and communicating the paths of grace in human lives.

We have also developed and practised more public forms of Christian discourse. These have included extended expositions of the Catechism in the first week of our annual Summer School programme, in the second week offering lectures typically grouped thematically (in recent years, for example, the lectures have focussed on Newman, on the Church in the first two centuries, on the Church and the Enlightenment, and on 'essential' Catholic texts). We have also regularly offered weekly public lectures throughout the academic year on historical, spiritual, philosophical and theological subjects. In the so-called 'Little Oratory', we have tried to emulate St Philip's own practice of expounding and reflecting upon Scripture, Christian writing and Christian lives in ways which might be called spiritual, rather than (say) academic, polemical or triumphalist. What does this mean? It reminds us, in Newman's words, that reason (even when deployed in expounding or defending the Faith) needs to be shaped by a kind of modesty and courtesy - Newman called it refinement - which purifies us of fastidiousness, self-importance and loftiness and of whatever savours of pomp, pretence and violence.

Intellectual Work

A further aspect of our pastoral vocation is predominantly intellectual in character. The Toronto Oratory founded St Philip's Seminary in 1989, to offer a full curriculum of studies in both philosophy and theology, preparatory to ordination. Most of us teach courses in the Seminary (some of which are taught by a small number of external lecturers) and many of us have received at least some of our intellectual formation there as well; in addition, our student body has comprised seminarians from dioceses in Ontario, from further afield in Canada, from dioceses and religious congregations in the US, as well as Oratorian students from around the world.

We not only provide the greater part of the intellectual formation of the seminarians, but also of their spiritual and human formation: through regular conferences and spiritual direction, by means of the students' involvement in our pastoral work in both parishes, and of course in the relationships (which Newman considered extensively as an Oratorian characteristic, naming it personal influence) built up through daily, familiar interaction. The circulation of all these elements - intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and personal - makes a stimulating and fruitful environment, not only for the students, we believe, but also for the Oratory. To date, 152 seminarians who have studied at St Philip's have gone on to be ordained as priests.

A Prospective Vocation to the Toronto Oratory: Two Approaches

Postulancy and Oratorian Novitiate

The simplest way to explore a possible vocation with the Toronto Oratory is to pay us a visit. Typically, you would write to the Superior, Fr Jonathan Robinson, introducing yourself, saying something, perhaps, about what has led you to think the Toronto Oratory might be the place God is calling you to be, and asking to come to stay. An initial visit could be for a few days, during which time you will have the chance to share our life, and of course speak with us individually. If you and we think the idea of your vocation here worth pursuing, there might follow a few similar visits, leading, if everyone thinks it right, to a month of postulancy. After that, a final decision will be reached, by you and by us, whether you should be clothed in the habit of St Philip and enter the novitiate.

The Oratorian novitiate is three years in duration. The first year is a “quiet year,” spent in the house, engaged in private reflection, sacristy work, domestic chores, and studies introductory to St Philip and the Oratory. Latin or Greek lessons are available as necessary. At the end of the “quiet year,” the novice’s desire and suitability for life in the Toronto Oratory is explicitly re-considered. Those who enter the second two years of novitiate begin studies in philosophy or theology at St Philip’s Seminary. When the three years of the novitiate have elapsed, the novice’s status is again reviewed. At this point, the novice may be “aggregated” to the Toronto Oratory and assume the rights and duties of membership.

'Oratory-sponsored' Seminarian and Seminary Degree

Becoming an 'Oratory-sponsored' seminarian is another, more indirect, way of exploring the possibility of a vocation here. Some kind of ecclesiastical sponsorship is necessary to enroll as a student at St Philip’s Seminary. The majority, when they enroll, are already associated with a particular diocese or religious order. But the possibility also exists of the Oratory itself sponsoring a student's studies, even if he is not yet one of our novices. This arrangement is particularly suitable for anyone who is seriously interested in considering whether his vocation might lie with us, and who, while he and we discern that, wants to pursue philosophical or theological studies. The opportunity of being an 'Oratory-sponsored' student is assumed at the student’s own expense and carries no obligation on either side that the student will necessarily join our community, either during his studies or when they are complete. The point is for the student and the community to explore a mutual interest in his vocation, by having him live in close relationship to the Oratory, while receiving intellectual and spiritual formation from us in common with other seminarians.

To contact the Provost of the Toronto Oratory: