The Scripture quotation, 'Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest', is one of the best known in Catholic circles yet the message is not always heeded, not always followed.
In some dioceses the Lord's words are taken to heart with an increasing number of young men responding to the call; in other dioceses, the Lord's words are ignored and their seminaries and training houses lie empty or are transformed into conference centres.
After years of vapid New Church posturing, the Archdiocese of Melbourne reached its vocation nadir in 1996 when only one candidate entered the seminary. It was time for change and back to the future. In desperation Jesus' words were taken seriously, and none too soon.
It did not take long for the fruits to be observed with a rise in the numbers of young men applying for entry to the seminary. In Australia's largest Archdiocese these are the four pillars of a vocation ministry which is faith-based, prayer-rich and God- centred:
* SIX30 is a weekly youth hour of Eucharistic adoration in St Patrick's Cathedral. Many of the young men who attend are in discernment with the Vocation Director, Father Anthony Denton. The others are their friends and supporters. Two priests are usually available for confession and many go.
* The Quo Vadis recollection evenings on the last Friday of the month enable young men in discernment to meet for prayer, reflection and a meal together
* The annual Directed Retreat caters for young men who are focused strongly on vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
* Open Days, by invitation, at Corpus Christi seminary are available for men considering their vocations.
In fact, the 2007 Directed Retreat was held recently, 27-29 July 2007, at the Amberley Retreat Centre. Some fifteen young men attended and one wrote to this writer immediately afterwards: 'The Retreat was both inspiring and instructive, a really powerful experience. I got to know God better and myself too. I feel much better motivated and prepared to live my current vocation while discerning my future one. I'll definitely go again if invited.'
In effect, we have a Melbourne school of prayer which has provided young men and their friends with places of quiet and contemplation.
Ordinary approaches to extend the message are to be used as well. On 9 August 2007, the Vocations Ministry team launched a new vocations website after that evening's SIX30 Holy Hour.
Year by year, the number of vocations is increasing and morale in the once devastated Archdiocese is rising too. The priest working passionately to continue this trend is Father Anthony Denton, Vocation Director and Chaplain to Catholic Youth Ministry for the last three years.
The vocation ministry outlined above is intense, tightly-focussed, involving perhaps no more than 150 people at any one time.
However, among those dozens of young men are many of the priests and church leaders of the future, ardent young Catholics, in many ways 'refugees', 'survivors' or 'a faithful remnant' of twelve years of secularised education in the nominally Catholic education system.
While there are hundreds of primary schools and secondary colleges in the Catholic system, each with its distinctive side, there are certain observable trends:
* At the end of 12 years of Catholic schooling only a small minority of students are practising Catholics. Secular values have corroded the vitals of Catholic education.
* If any comment or criticism is made to bureaucrats in the system they tend to respond by setting the bar lower and lower as to what can be achieved. After all they need their jobs. They do not deny the evidence nor the problems - in my experience.
* All too often religious education is reduced to vapid moralising, fostering a concern for the marginalised and excluded (good!), plus political correctness with a vague, soft-left tone. Faith, worship, Christian morality and devotion are on the back burner. In this atmosphere, the most marginalised person in a Catholic school is the seriously-minded Catholic.
The Catholic school is no longer a seedbed of vocations. It is a situation which Catholic Youth Ministry has attempted, albeit in a small way, to confront and reverse.
However, Catholic Youth Ministry is wider than the quest for vocations to the priestly and religious life. After all, the vast majority of Catholic youth are students or workers and potentially youth ministry is directed at them all.
In post-industrial Western cultures most of the age-cohort, late teens to early twenties, are in some form of tertiary education. Catholic youth ministry tries to address the religious needs of those who wish to be involved. However, not with the tight-focused intense flavour of vocation ministry.
At the moment the emphasis is on preparation for the World Youth Day activities in Sydney in 2008 preceded by the 'Days in the Diocese' festivities in Melbourne and Adelaide. Apart from this special focus CYM runs or encourages the usual youth activities of socials, dances and film evenings.
In addition, each year there are:
* The Prayer and Reflection evenings for young men at St Anthony's Shrine, 182 Power Street, Hawthorn, where Father Denis Ward is the leader.
* The Victorian Catholic Students Lenten Retreat held at Casa Pallotti, Millgrove.
* The Anima Foundations of Faith Course, a twelve week experience run at the Cathedral by Father Anthony Denton to address the crass spiritual ignorance of many well- intentioned Catholic youth emerging tabula rasa from the Catholic schools after those long years of 'faith formation'.
Catholic Youth Ministry - directed from the vast Cathedral offices - provides a second tier of support for the general vocation efforts of the Archdiocese.
Br Barry Coldrey CFC is an experienced teacher and author of many books and articles on Catholic topics.