Following the launch of Michael Gilchrist's new book Lost! Australia's Catholics Today by Mike Willesee on 23 October, a report on the book by Tess Livingstone - Cardinal Pell's biographer - appeared in Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper on 25 October. This report prompted a critical response from Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane and subsequent reports and exchanges on the national CathNews website.
The Archbishop was apparently concerned at the prominence given to Brisbane's miniscule seminary numbers compared with the rest of Australia. His response shed some light on why the Church in Queensland is in such poor shape.
While Lost! is concerned about the continuing decline in belief and practice across Australia, it draws particular attention to the poor state of Catholicism in Queensland where the 'spirit of Vatican II' and the ceaseless quest for relevance and modernisation have long held sway.
In her report, Tess Livingstone referred to the comparative seminary numbers around the country. Lost!, she said, 'has concluded that Queensland is by far the worst state in Australia at attracting new priests to its seminary'.
While the number of priestly vocations is only one indicator of spiritual health, as is the rate of Mass attendance, each is a sound litmus test, given their centrality to the Catholic faith as a whole.
In 2006 there were seven students for the whole of Queensland (with its five dioceses) studying at Brisbane's Holy Spirit Seminary, including one man in his 60s.
In comparison, as Livingstone notes, there were 44 students in Sydney (with another three studying in Rome), 41 in Melbourne and 20 in Perth, where nine new priests were ordained in 2005 and 81 since 1991. In addition, Sydney and Perth both have second seminaries with 20 students in each training to be missionary priests for the Neocatechumenate, 'a Catholic organisation that sends priests to areas of need around the world, including Australia'.
Indeed, the figure for the entire state of Queensland was barely half that of the small rural New South Wales diocese of Wagga Wagga.
Livingstone quoted Lost! that 'approaches such as planning for priestless parishes, restructuring of parishes and organising more lay-led services were counterproductive' and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. 'If the priesthood is devalued when lay people are seemingly presented as substitutes, who would wish to enter a seminary with all the sacrifices that entails?'
This pattern was worldwide, with dioceses and seminaries too open to modern culture and bending over backwards to be relevant having problems attracting priests: 'People who are willing to make sacrifices to become a priest will not do so for a religion that is lukewarm and does not challenge their comfort zone'.
Responding to Livingstone's report, Archbishop Bathersby (Courier Mail, 26 October) claimed seminary numbers were 'only part of the picture'.
'It is one thing', he said, 'to judge local churches by the number of young men seeking priesthood, it is another thing to examine the vitality, vision, and involvement of the people of God at a local level. Proportionately, at this level, the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane would be among the best in Australia.
'Once people grasp the excitement of the 'Jesus, communion and mission' emphasis of the archdiocese, vocations to priesthood and religious life will flow again. That is already beginning to happen.
'I have no desire for candidates to priesthood who wish to take the church back to a past certainly noted for its numbers, but, sadly uncovered, in more recent times for the sinfulness of certain members whose burden the church will carry with difficulty into the future. If Michael Gilchrist wants to return to a so-called golden past with all its many weaknesses, so be it. I don't.'
In fact, Lost! does not refer to any 'golden past', confining itself to present realities in the more successful seminaries in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Wagga Wagga. All follow John Paul II's document on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis.
Archbishop Bathersby's reference to a 'golden past with all its many weaknesses' seems to suggest Australia's other seminaries could be forming potential sexual predators.
Despite the Archbishop's unsubstantiated optimism about 'vitality, vision, and involvement', Queensland's seminary numbers are unlikely to move upwards in any long term way until its culture is changed to better reflect the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The recent lessons from Melbourne and Sydney should have been obvious. A change of leadership and seminary reforms have led to doubled numbers in relatively quick time in both centres.
Brisbane's Catholic Leader (5 November), however, remained upbeat. After reviewing the Archbishop's Courier Mail letter, it quoted the seminary rector on 'several recent initiatives' that 'were helping to turn around the low number of seminarians'. These included the appointment of the archdiocese's first lay vocations officer in January and the arrival of four Nigerian seminarians in 2007.
While one hopes the numbers situation will improve across Queensland, expressions of pious hope and cosmetic changes are unlikely to have any significant impact until the deeper malaise is addressed. Meanwhile, potential vocations will continue to look to other dioceses for their priestly formation.