Within the Catholic Church in Australia, there is a hidden story of immense importance: the vocations ferment across Australia.
In the vast rural Port Pirie diocese in South Australia, there had been no vocations to the priesthood in almost twenty years. However, under the inspired leadership of Jesuit Bishop, Greg O'Kelly, things are changing.
In 2014, a former Missionary of God's Love was ordained to serve in the diocese. He had studied at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney. A second young man preparing for Port Pirie is studying at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne. He is a Filipino and will minister in the diocese as a priest for several years before returning to the Philippines.
The third vocation is an Adelaide-born Vietnamese who transferred from Vianney College, Wagga to prepare for service in rural South Australia and studies at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, the year 2015 promises to be the most favourable for vocations and ordinations for many years.
On Sunday, 15 February, thirteen men arrived to commence studies for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, Carlton. There are four additional men due to arrive after they have received their visas to enter Australia. Of the 17, 12 are for Melbourne, three for Adelaide, one for Sandhurst and one for Darwin.
These figures are excellent but there is more striking news for the Archdiocese. In 2015, at Corpus Christi seminary, there are eleven deacons due to be ordained priests, eight for Melbourne and three for Sandhurst. There are 32 seminarians in the remaining year levels (2-6). Overall, there are over sixty men in training at this seminary.
However, the news from the two Perth seminaries is even more encouraging: at the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, there are sixteen men in training, including four who have commenced formation within the last couple of weeks. However, there is more: the seminary has three Deacons to be ordained priests this year and three additional senior students to be ordained Deacons. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Perth, expects to ordain ten men (priests, deacons) from St Charles Archdiocesan seminary in 2015 – meaning overall that Perth expects to have 16 ordinations this year!
At the Good Shepherd seminary, in Homebush (Sydney) there are three Deacons to be ordained priests this year; and five men have arrived to commence formation for the priesthood.
In addition, in Brisbane an exceptionally energetic team, led by Father Morgan Batt, Vocation Director and Seminary Rector, Mgr. Anthony Randazzo, is attempting to create a "culture of vocations" across the Archdiocese and, indeed, the whole of Queensland. There has been considerable success. In 2014, six men were ordained priests and three ordained Deacons from Holy Spirit Seminary, Banyo. At the start of this year, six men entered the seminary to commence training.
As at Corpus Christi College, Carlton (Victoria), Vianney College, Wagga (NSW), and the Holy Spirit Seminary, Banyo (Queensland), new accommodation is being built to handle the increased numbers of men preparing for the priesthood.
However, to reach this happy state of affairs, all the seminaries of the 1980s and the early 1990s had to experience a process of reform. The first two were St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Perth under Archbishop Hickey and Vianney College, Wagga, founded by Bishop Bill Brennan in 1992.
Both were fully in harmony with Pope John Paul II's Encyclical, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I will Give You Pastors) concerning priestly formation.
Why was reform required?
We have to turn our minds back thirty to forty 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 teachings and thrust of the second Vatican Council, there was ambiguity and confusion among some seminary staff and students as to the vital focus of the priestly vocation.
There was even a tendency to treat the official Magisterium of the Church as easily ignored or discarded.
Was the priestly vocation focused on the call of Jesus Christ, was the priestly vocation first-and-foremost a spiritual experience and a spiritual ministry or was the principal focus of the priest as a type of social worker, a man deeply committed to social change in the here-and-now and for some, a man consumed by the focus of soft-Left secular politics? This was the contemporary 1980s tension.
Both Archbishop Hickey and Bishop Brennan believed – and the Encyclical, Pastores Dabo Vobis confirmed – that the priest is essentially a man of God; concerned for people, but their spiritual call and their eternal salvation first-and-foremost.
On most political questions, the Catholic people can legitimately differ, but politics is essentially the realm of the layman and laywoman, not the priest.
Therefore, correct seminary formation must reflect this fundamental reality. The seminarian is 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 such as Adoration of Christ in the Eucharist and to Mary, the Mother of God born into the world. The Magisterium – the teaching of the Church – guides the courses of philosophy and theology.
In some of the post-Vatican II seminaries of the English-speaking world, the teachings of the Magisterium were as a discount, to be accepted or rejected by the individual conscience, a sort of pick-and-mix, a la carte attitude to Church teaching.
The years have passed. As a result of Bishop Brennan's pioneering reform in rural New South Wales, the Wagga diocese enjoys the best ratio of priests to Catholic people in Australia and enjoys the youngest average age of its clergy.
With the robust interventions of Archbishop Barry Hickey in Perth and of George Pell (when Archbishop of Melbourne) and later as Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney - gradually all the Australian seminaries were reformed broadly on the lines put forward by Pope St John Paul II.
Of course, the ethnic mix of the Australian population has changed over recent decades and the multi-cultural nature of the Catholic people has changed too. In the modern seminary there are men whose surnames reflect the traditional mix of Australian life until the post-World War II period, but, in addition there are seminarians whose surnames reflect more recent immigrants from the Pacific islands, from South Asia (India and Sri Lanka), from Vietnam, the Philippines and Africa.
Meanwhile, in the Holy Spirit Seminary, at Harris Park (Parramatta Diocese) the year 2015 opens with sixteen students including three young men commencing their formation. There are two Deacons preparing for ordination to the priesthood. At the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Sydney there are 21 students in formation, including four new arrivals for First Year.
"The Culture of Vocations"
What are some of the factors which have led to this sustained growth in seminary numbers? The new revitalised young adult ministry and the World Youth Days have helped. The euphoria associated with them and the good publicity they generate has assisted young men and women to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
The clear, unambiguous focus of modern clerical training has also assisted and the striking personality of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis is another encouraging factor.
Successful dioceses encourage Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist in their deaneries and parishes, and especially in the dedicated weekly Holy Hour (SIX30) in their cathedrals for young Catholic adults. This Holy Hour is supported by the bishop but managed – as far as possible – by the young adults themselves.
This Holy Hour draws active Catholics together and as Cardinal Pell has said, young dedicated Catholics "need friends in the faith!" The monthly Theology on Tap movement (under various names) also draws active Catholics to share their common values. The same can be said of the increasingly successful Retreat-Conferences which can fire dedicated Catholics: including iWitness, Young Men of God, Australian Catholic Students Association, Reasons for Hope and Ignite (Brisbane)
Flourishing Religious Orders
In addition to the good numbers at the diocesan seminaries some Religious Orders are experiencing encouraging numbers of vocations. There are the Missionaries of God's Love who, at a ceremony in St Christopher's Cathedral, Manuka, 9 February 2014, were accepted by the Church as a Diocesan Congregation. At the moment, they have sixteen young men in Novitiate formation in Canberra and a further eighteen studying for the priesthood at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne (while living in the Burwood parish).
In 2013, the Franciscan (Capuchins) ordained four young men to the priesthood and in 2014, a similar number of Dominican friars were ordained. Meanwhile, at St Dominic's Priory in Camberwell (Melbourne) there are twelve 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, Tennessee (via their Sydney convent) are gaining Australian vocations. In Brisbane, during 2014, three young ladies entered Verbum Dei (a new "Religious Movement"), the Canossian Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of St Paul de Chartres.
Overall, it is simply a truism that Religious Orders who have maintained their pristine Charisms and high religious standards are the ones gaining vocations.