In the writings of the Founder and of Oblates who were his contemporaries, there is often enough a mention of “advanced studies” or “advanced courses.”
For several decades, almost the entire Oblate personnel was made up of young priests. The problems this posed were always a concern for Bishop de Mazenod and the Oblate superiors. They were dealing with an inadequate religious formation in the novitiate under the direction of novice masters who were young and unseasoned; studies were not stressed and were, at times, abridged with two or three years of study at the scholasticate. There were many who left the Congregation after a few years of vows (208 from 600 professed). Preparation for preaching was almost non-existent while it was for a long time the only ministry exercised by the Oblates, etc.
The concerns of the Founder and the superiors in this regard surfaced right at the very beginnings of the Congregation. It was, however, only at the General Chapter of 1837 that remedies were sought for this evil. At the General Chapter, one of the capitulants suggested making it obligatory for all the priests to make a one month novitiate after five years of priesthood. This suggestion was not accepted. Another, however, was accepted: to prepare a course of studies for the priests in the first ten years of ordination. With this in view, a committee of four was appointed. However, these four priests did not find the time to meet between the General Chapters of 1837 and 1843. They were reappointed to their task, but did nothing. In 1846, in their session of April 4, the General Administration decided to gather the young priests during the summer to have them follow “a practical course of sacred eloquence.” This course was given at Parménie, near Notre-Dame de l’Osier from July to September by Father Ambroise Vincens, the superior at Osier. Six young priests and two scholastic brothers participated. This experiment was not repeated the following years, it seems.
In the General Chapter of 1850, a new, more ambitious project was set up: “From now on, no young priests of the Congregation will be able to be put to work in the sacred ministry until they have spent two years in our houses dedicated to preparatory studies and studies specifically treating of the ends of the Institute.” This two-year course of “advanced studies” was established in 1851 at Le Calvaire at Marseilles and was made up of lectures on Sacred Scripture given by Father P. J. A. Nicolas, dogmatic theology given by Father Adrien Telmon who had returned from Canada, eloquence and moral theology by Fathers Ambroise Vincens and J.-B. Berne in 1851-1852 and by Father Ferdinand Charles Gondrand in 1852-1853. About ten students followed the course, but this new experiment was never repeated.
The young priests continued, however, to be a source of concern for the superiors. That is why, at the 1856 Chapter, a proposal was once again made “concerning the reestablishing of the course of special studies that had been decreed at the last General Chapter. The scant success that this course has reaped,” we read in the Chapter’s report, “gives little incentive to reestablishing it. However, the necessity was acknowledged to give our young Oblates some preparatory studies for the missions; and when one member of the Chapter presented an amendment to the effect that these young people should do one year of special studies with a specific view to training them as missionaries and that this training be independent of the three years of theology, this amendment was accepted.”
Another year was needed, it seems, to appoint professors and students. This course was subsequently given in the Oblate house of Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseilles by Father Vincens, assisted by Father Charles Bellon and Father J. P. Fayette in 1857-1858, replaced the following year by Father A. Chaine. There were six students in 1857-1858 and nine in 1858-1859. Another group of students, it seemed, followed this course, given for the last time in 1859-1860.
Concern about the ongoing formation of the young priests would be raised again at the 1861 General Chapter, but no concrete measures were taken.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.