In recent years, the Perth Archdiocese has achieved considerable success in attracting increasing numbers of young men to the priesthood. Among Australia's larger dioceses, it has the most seminarians in proportion to Catholic population. In this respect, Perth goes against the trend elsewhere in the Western world and in most Australian dioceses, where in some cases there is more talk of "priestless parishes" and lay-led communion services than of any serious commitment to increase priestly numbers.
Archbishop Barry Hickey has accepted an 'AD2000' invitation to provide some background to the priestly vocations situation in Perth.
With gratitude to God I am pleased to announce that fourteen men will be ordained to the priesthood this year for the Archdiocese of Perth. Eight were ordained on 30 June, and six more will be in December this year.
Undoubtedly, this is good news for Australia, as it points to a real hope and expectation that numbers of vocations to the priesthood will rise.
Some dioceses are experiencing a serious decline in the number of priests available for appointment, and a lack of vocations in the seminaries. This sad state of affairs causes discouragement and a certain fatalistic attitude that the situation will only steadily get worse.
I hope that the fairly healthy numbers of priests and seminarians in Perth indicates that things can change unexpectedly and dramatically over a short period of time.
Let me say that the numbers in Perth are not as startling as might seem at first glance.
Perth is unusual in having two diocesan seminaries, not one. In addition to St Charles' Seminary, which accepts local vocations, we have a Missionary Seminary, also diocesan, called "Redemptoris Mater", run by priests associated with the Neo-Catechumenate. The students at "Redemptoris Mater" generally do not come from Perth but from Neo- Catechumenal groups around the world. It is a truly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic seminary. In this way Perth has an unfair advantage over other dioceses in Australia in having about 37 students from other countries.
They are all ordained for Perth, incardinated into the Archdiocese of Perth, and receive their appointment from the Archbishop. It has been my practice to appoint them to our parishes for a period of two years, after which, by a gentlemen's agreement, I release them to work with Neo- Catechumenal communities anywhere in the world.
That being said, of the fourteen being ordained this year for the Archdiocese of Perth, seven are from "Redemptoris Mater" Seminary, the other seven either from St Charles' Seminary, St Paul's (Sydney), or from the Beda College (Rome).
We still have 24 students at St Charles' Seminary, 37 at Redemptoris Mater and two studying for the priesthood in Rome (the Irish College and Beda College).
Why this healthy state of affairs?
It is hard to say, but there are a number of factors that may help explain it.
The idea of the priesthood promoted by our seminary staff and our vocations director is very much that outlined in the Vatican Documents like Pastores Dabo Vobis. The priesthood is understood as a sacramental participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ as Head. It differs in this respect from the priesthood of all believers through Baptism. To be "configured" sacra- mentally to Christ the priest is to act in his name in a leadership position within the Church. It is spiritual leadership I am talking about, not the secular or worldly model.
We consciously resist the modern tendency to minimise the difference between the ministerial priesthood of Holy Orders and the universal priesthood of Baptism because to do so affects vocations. Unless young men can see there is a real difference between the two, the call to Holy Orders is not clearly made or heard.
I am sure that the decision to re-open St Charles' Seminary five years ago also made a difference. While remaining grateful to St Francis Xavier Seminary in Adelaide for giving us many fine priests over the years, we felt that the presence of a seminary in Perth would in itself be a sign that we were serious about vocations and wanted to highlight the need for local vocations to the priesthood.
Our priests are very supportive of our seminaries: they often visit them, they have annual celebrations of priests' Jubilees at St Charles' Seminary, and actively promote vocations in their parishes.
We have also sought to speak of vocations to the priesthood specifically, without running them together with vocations in general. Since Australia patently needs priests, why not speak about vocations to the priesthood frequently and without inhibition? Vocations to the priesthood do not detract from vocations to the religious life or from lay vocations. The Church needs them all. Given the decline in priestly vocations generally in the Western World, and the expansion in the number of parishes in the major cities, it seems obvious that one should give them pastoral priority.
We do not believe that the role of the priest can be filled by lay people. It is true that many administrative and pastoral duties formerly carried out by priests can be done by good lay people, perhaps even better. But the essential tasks of the lessened by affirming the role of the priest. All dovetail together harmoniously.
It seems to me that today's youth is drawn by this clarity of purpose. If the modern writers are correct when they sense a return to the sacred among the young, then it is important that we tap into it and offer a challenge that stretches them. If Jesus is truly calling some of them to be priests, our encouragement to them to respond to this awesome vocation is a matter of urgency.
If I were to summarise my approach, it would be as follows:
* Create a real desire for priestly vocations at all levels in the Church: among priests, parishes, schools, prayer groups and movements and in tertiary institutions.
* Aim high. Despite public scandals, or perhaps even because of them, the unique dignity of the priesthood should be stressed. This has a powerful appeal for those wishing to give themselves totally to the Lord.
* Do not hope or expect that married clergy will be the answer. Celibacy is not a barrier. It is part of the lofty ideal that attracts
* Avoid terms like "the ordained ministry" that minimise the difference between the priesthood of Holy Orders and the universal priesthood of Baptism.
* Select seminary staff that share this vision and who are themselves good models of priestly dedication and spirituality.
* Accept students from other countries (also priests) with careful screening.
* Base one's theology of the priesthood on papal documents, not on theological speculation.
* Pray and expect vocations to come. If we believe Jesus is calling sufficient numbers to the priesthood, we must never give in to negativity or be inhibited by those who are opposed to priestly ordinations for whatever reason.
The Perth experience is not an isolated case. On a recent visit to Perth, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said that the numbers entering his seminary had quadrupled. In Australia the interest is growing. I pray that in a very short while it will be evident in every diocese.