Ecce Sacerdos Magnus: A Tribute to Fr. Jonathan Robinson, Cong. Orat. (1929-2020)

Ecce sacerdos magnus. Yesterday, a great priest, Fr. Jonathan Robinson, cong.orat., died. While this familiar refrain, ecce sacerdos magnus, is typically applied to bishops, the words certainly apply to him in my own estimation:
Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God: Therefore by an oath the Lord made him to increase among his people. To him He gave the blessing of all nations, and confirmed His covenant upon his head. 
Fr. Jonathan Robinson was an Oratorian; a member of the congregation of St. Philip Neri. Specifically he was the founder of the Toronto Oratory which was once famously described as the crown jewel of Catholicism in Canada -- a sentiment I would heartily agree with. 

I first met Fr. Robinson around 2005 or 2006. At the time I had started a new website that I called New Liturgical Movement. Only a few short months after its founding it was announced that an organization called CIEL (Centre International d'Etudes Liturgiques) -- which I was also involved in -- would be hosting its 2006 annual conference at Merton College, Oxford (instead of the more usual French destinations).  The idea of my attending this conference came about through some of the organizers (and others who were associated with the British branch of this organization -- CIEL UK) and I set about fundraising so that I might try make my way there. I put out the call and one of the primary benefactors who responded to that call and made this journey to Oxford possible was none other than Fr. Robinson himself; he was willing to take a chance on a young upstart blogger, making a significant donation that would prove critical. The rest, as they say, is history, and through that conference numerous important connections were established -- connections that remain to this very day in fact.

But my links to Fr. Robinson and the rest of the Oratory would not end there. Of particularly fond memory for me were the various visits I made to the Toronto Oratory, attending their Sunday evening Solemn Vespers (sung to the likes of Byrd and Tallis amongst others) followed by dinner in the refectory where I was able to enjoy a fine meal and fine company while listening to readings from the Roman Martyrology. After dinner, we retired to their parlour where we would enjoy a glass of Sherry as well as fraternal banter and edifying conversation.

I recall too with fondness discussing with Fr. Robinson the redesign of their private house chapel. I recall the joy we experienced at the beatification of John Henry Newman and touring their house, their seminary and their library. There are too many good memories to recall, all of them treasured; all of them inextricably linked to the person of Fr. Robinson.

After I retired from NLM in mid 2013 to take a sabbatical of sorts, I lost touch for a time, but the association was never far from my mind and it was once again renewed under Liturgical Arts Journal. Indeed, LAJ has frequently featured the excellent schola of the Toronto Oratory, the recent beautification of their sanctuary, as well as other endeavours of the Toronto Oratory.

All of these personal reflections are to suggest one thing and one thing only: the importance that Fr. Robinson and the Oratory has held for me personally and the positive influence he has had upon both the NLM and LAJ projects. Most importantly of all, however, what I would hope readers would take from all this is the excellence of the Toronto Oratory and what a great priest and man Fr. Robinson is and was.

Fr. Robinson was indeed a gentleman and a scholar (more on this aspect in the second part by John Sonnen below). A philosopher, a man of refined taste, dignity, liturgical sense and erudition.  Amongst my many memories of him, I recall well my conversations with him on the release of Benedict XVI's famed motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, and our shared joy at both the fact of it and the potentialities of it -- and if it is not too personal to say, I can also well recall the emotion that it stirred within him as one who had lived through the tumultuous times of the liturgical changes that followed the Second Vatican Council.

Fr. Robinson was, of course, a professor as well as an author, authoring numerous books on the subject of the sacred liturgy and other topics, philosophical, liturgical and spiritual. His works were always of interest, always intellectually challenging and always profound.

Canada, and indeed the Church in general, has lost a very great priest and a very great man, but his legacy will be carried on by his spiritual sons at the Toronto Oratory which shall forever be associated with his name.

Thank you, Father Robinson. Ecce sacerdos magnus. Requiescat in pace. +


PART II - By John Paul Sonnen

A good friend of the new liturgical movement in Canada has passed, the Very Rev. Jonathan Robinson.  He was the founder, superior and provost of the Toronto Oratory of St. Philip Neri and former rector of St. Philip's Seminary in Toronto.  An exemplary son of St. Philip, he was a priest for fifty-eight years.  It is no exaggeration to say Fr. Robinson did more than probably any other priest in Canada in the area of preserving and fostering the best of astute liturgical arts and academic study during a very dark period in Church history.  He was a wonderful man, a gifted writer, essayist, author of many books, an eloquent speaker, a university professor, a holy priest and a loyal son of the Church.  May his memory be eternal.

Fr. Robinson was also a Catholic intellectual, a rare asset in today's world.  He had a licentiate from the Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate in philosophy from the secular University of Edinburgh.  His achievements were many - he taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and McGill, he was for some time the chairman of the philosophy department at McGill and he gave seminars at Oxford and Fordham. Fr. Robinson was an expert on Hegel which helped him to warn others of the influences from Enlightenment-era philosophies such as those of Kant and Hegel and Marx who were unduly influencing society and the Church, effectively changing how modern society perceives God, man, society, community, salvation and worship.  The result was that much liturgical renewal in the area of the postconciliar liturgy was heavily dependent upon themes marked out by the modern and postmodern philosophies.

Fr. Robinson was ordained by Paul-Emile Cardinal Leger in 1962 and appointed the English-language secretary of the Cardinal in Montreal.  That was just before the storm.  As a priest he lived through some tough times during the liturgical and cultural revolution in Quebec and was able to diagnose in clear language what exactly went wrong with the liturgical reform.  In 2005 he wrote an excellent book entitled The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backwards, available from Ignatius Press.  As a priest who was ordained the same year the Council opened, his front seat assessment of the liturgical revolution in the form of his recorded observations in this book are an immense help for any people who may wish to understand with more clarity and disentangle the complex ideas that infected the reform of the liturgy and changed the mind-set of many ordinary Catholics.

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