The buoyant quality of Australian seminary life, obvious over recent years, resonates confidently as the new seminary year is in session after vacation.
In 2013, 24 men were ordained as diocesan priests and the numbers entering this year are encouraging.
To reach this happy state of affairs, all the seminaries of the 1980s and the early 1990s had to experience a process of reform. One of the first was Vianney College, Wagga Wagga, founded by Bishop Bill Brennan in 1992 and inspired by Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, Pastores dabo vobis concerning priestly formation.
Not long after, St Charles Seminary in Perth – closed in 1975 because of a lack of vocations – was re-opened by then newly-appointed Archbishop Barry Hickey.
Why was reform required?
We have to turn our minds back 30 to 40 years to recall that by the 1980s, due to the relentless drift of a secular spirit in Australian public life and to some misunderstandings of the spirit and teaching of the Vatican II, there was ambiguity and confusion among some seminary staff and students as to the vital focus of the priestly vocation, and a tendency to treat Church authority as easily ignored or discarded.
Was the priestly vocation first and foremost a spiritual ministry, or primarily social work, with a commitment to social change in the here-and-now with a soft-left secular focus? This was the 1980s picture.
Bishop Brennan believed and the Encyclical Pastores Dabo Vobis confirmed that the priest is essentially a man of God concerned for people, with their spiritual call and their eternal salvation at the forefront. Correct seminary formation needed to reflect this fundamental reality.
The seminarian should be consumed by the rich sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, formed in regular habits of personal prayer and comfortable with time-honoured and traditional devotions. The Church's official teachings would guide the courses of philosophy and theology.
Thanks to Bishop Brennan's pioneering reforms, the Wagga Wagga Diocese enjoys the best ratio of priests to Catholic people in Australia and the youngest average age of its clergy.
The Wagga diocese led and over time – and with the robust interventions of Archbishop (Cardinal) George Pell in Melbourne and Sydney, gradually all the Australian seminaries were reformed broadly on the lines that Bishop Brennan pioneered.
As the seminaries re-open, morale at Vianney College is high. Numbers are rising and Bishop G. Hanna is having three new houses constructed – each house to have rooms for three students.
There are 28 students in residence, sixteen of whom are for the Wagga Wagga Diocese, eight for Lismore and three for Armidale. The remainder are from a range of Congregations.
If Vianney College was the first seminary to pioneer reform, Brisbane's Holy Spirit Seminary, Banyo, has been the most recent. In 2009, when Msgr Anthony Randazzo arrived from Rome as its new Rector he met four students. However, in the following six years – guided by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the Vocations Director, Fr Morgan Batt, and Msgr Randazzo, there has been encouraging growth.
In 2013, the Bishops of the Queensland Province ordained ten men to the priesthood, and this year there are 26 students at the Holy Spirit Seminary. There are another five young men in pre-seminary formation at Canali House where Brisbane's Vocation Director guides their discernment process.
Of course, the ethnic mix of the Australian population has changed over recent decades and this is reflected in the Church and its seminaries with more recent immigrants from the Pacific islands, from South Asia (India and Sri Lanka), from Vietnam, the Philippines and Africa.
Meanwhile in Melbourne's Corpus Christi College, there are 55 seminarians and four additional students are expected once they have received their visas. There are now five seminarians from Hobart where the new Archbishop, Julian Porteous, has made gaining priestly vocations from Tasmania his first priority.
In the Archdiocese of Sydney, vocations have also flourished. Since World Youth Day 2008, Cardinal Pell has ordained 30 for priesthood in the Archdiocese.
This year there are 39 seminarians in residence at Good Shepherd Seminary in Homebush, while at the Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary at Chester Hill there are nineteen.
In the Parramatta diocesan seminary at Harris Park, there are thirteen students including five young men commencing their formation.
Causes of growth
What are some of the factors which have led to this sustained growth in seminary numbers? The World Youth Days have undoubtedly helped in fostering priestly vocations.
Successful dioceses encourage Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist and especially in the dedicated Holy Hour (SIX30) in their cathedrals for young Catholic adults. This Holy Hour draws practising Catholics together and as Cardinal Pell has said, young active Catholics "need friends in the faith".
In addition to the good numbers at the diocesan seminaries some religious orders are experiencing encouraging numbers of vocations, notably the Missionaries of God's Love which has 16 young men in Novitiate formation in Canberra and a further eighteen studying for the priesthood at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne.
In 2013, the Franciscan (Capuchins) ordained four young men to the priesthood and this year, a similar number of Dominican friars are due for ordination. Meanwhile, at St Dominic's Priory in Camberwell (Melbourne) there are 12 men in various stages of formation for the Order.
Among the female Congregations, the Sisters of Life (New York) and the Dominican Sisters of Nashville (via their Sydney convent) are gaining Australian vocations. Overall, it is simply a truism that religious orders which have a clear charism are gaining vocations.