The Joined-Up Approach

“Joined-up” is a nice description of the wee, tiny campus where I have found myself teaching “Catholic literature” this last year. It is a little labyrinth, made from a few old houses joined together, around a modest courtyard, and a cloister, shared with the Toronto Oratory. Let us call it St. Philip’s Seminary, for that is its name.

“Philip” as in Saint Philip Neri, guide to these Oratorians who have, over the last forty years, made their “suitable abode” in Parkdale, one of inner Toronto’s least wealthy neighborhoods.

I want to give a first-hand view of something that has filled me with hope for the future of the Church. So hold that thought: “Joined-up.”

Recently, I wrote in this space of a Pew survey, which gave rather shocking numbers to the decline of Catholicism in America. Insofar as the Church has become “mainstream,” she has followed the path of mainstream Protestant congregations: towards extinction.

Canada is different from the United States in some respects, but not in others. Catholicism in French Canada is a (very sad) story to itself, comparable to what we have since seen in Ireland. But the Pew findings fit English-speaking Canada, exactly.

Grandchildren of the last generation before Vatican II no longer go to church. But we knew that already. The survey shows that they are now ceasing to self-identify as Catholics. They have more than drifted. They no longer recognize the Church as their heritage.

In a time of mental and moral decay – of professional sport and mass entertainment, cheap bread and the post-modern circus — the Church cannot hold an audience. Desperate efforts to enliven the Sunday show – to make the Mass “relevant” to contemporary life  — are not working. Indeed, as I know from my children’s generation, these efforts are dismissed as “lame.” They drive people away, faster.

And then we confront the “vocations crisis,” that will leave – has already left – so many of the remaining children of the ’sixties to their own devices. Try to imagine a Church without priests. How does it recover?

Let me draw this scene darker. Such priests as we still have were formed in that “post-” culture. To start with, they don’t know any Latin. But this is only the first clue to a more general ignorance. They are shockingly unacquainted with Church history, with the Fathers and Doctors, and more broadly, with the entire cultural heritage of the Christendom that lies under the slush ice of current “Western Civ,” still poking through in places.

This includes “modern” culture, as well as ancient and mediaeval. Let me take as my anecdote a priest to whom I mentioned some prominent twentieth-century Catholic novelists I’d been presenting to a class at St. Philip’s – Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Shusaku Endo, Sigrid Undset. He had not heard of even one of them.

I know atheists who have read such works. I know intelligent people, far from Catholic, whose musical appreciation extends to classic settings of the Mass no longer heard in our churches. Likewise, an “agnostic” who “worships” Chartres and Reims. Others, who know that many of the greatest modern artists were very religious, and most of those, very Catholic.

“Saint Philip Neri” by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1656 [National Museum of San Marino]
“Saint Philip Neri” by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1656 [National Museum of San Marino]
Yet all of these dismiss the Church today as something finished, dead. None are helped to see the whole Christian vision – through the art and architecture, the music and liturgy, the poetry and narratives that inspire with their particular beauties. The connections are lost on them.

And in the mystical order of the Church, it is the priests, the monks and canons, the bishops and abbots, the abbesses and nuns, on whom we have relied to make the connections.

But what if they are not taught, or taught only shallow, transient things? So that they cannot begin to make the synaptic connections between the present fleeting moment and what endures? What of those for whom “theology” is just a grim but necessary credential?

How can they impart a feeling for the height and breadth of the religion they represent, when they don’t have this feeling themselves?

With foresight, in 1986, Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter asked the Fathers of the Oratory to establish their “philosophy division” within his Toronto diocese, as a way to provide not only a high level of intellectual training, but real spiritual and personal formation.

St. Philip’s Seminary is, to my mind, a portent of a more promising future. It is small, yet the number of priests it has confirmed in their vocations is disproportionately large. They don’t merely graduate with “degrees in religion.”

But more than this, for our era of “vocational crisis” – St. Philip’s sends them out with minds alive, and hearts aflame. Students drawn not only locally but from far afield, including religious communities in England, the USA, Germany, Australia, mix in an environment that evokes an earlier time, when Europe’s great universities were in formation.

The school is all muscle and no fat: my tiny paycheck can attest to that. Yet the benefits, even for me, are huge.

Teaching, for instance, Shakespeare – in the hope of giving access not only to a late mediaeval, but to an immortal, profoundly Catholic understanding of the individual in relation to politics and society – I have learned myself, from truly impressive young men.

And in a “monastic” environment, free of the usual (extravagant) campus distractions. It brings out the best in them. As one student told me, “The world I came from was small. The world I have come into is large. I could never go back.”

St. Philip’s remarkable “Joined-up Approach” was suggested, I think, by St. Philip Neri himself, through Blessed John Henry Newman. We are in a strange city, and we need a map. We need to view it from a high place, from the church tower: “You must be above your knowledge, not under it, or it will oppress you; and the more you have of it, the greater will be your load.”

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: