The significant increase in vocations to the diocesan priesthood in Australia that became evident during the 1990s, following the founding of the Wagga Wagga seminary by Bishop Brennan, the leadership of Archbishop Hickey in Perth and the seminary reforms by Archbishop (now Cardinal Pell) in Melbourne and Sydney is continuing. Meanwhile, the situation has been improving in Brisbane after decades of drought.
Across Sydney there are now three seminaries: the Archdiocesan Seminary of the Good Shepherd at Homebush, the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Pagewood, and the Holy Spirit Seminary of the Parramatta Diocese at St Mary's. The Redemptoris Mater is run by the Neocatechumenate, a new vital movement within the Church.
During the last three years, the numbers of students in the three seminaries have been in the 60-70 range which is three times the numbers of ten years ago when Cardinal Pell was appointed to Sydney. Of these the Redemptoris Mater Seminary has 22 and the smaller, more recently established Holy Spirit Seminary has ten in formation.
In 2009 Cardinal Pell ordained four men for the Sydney Archdiocese, the largest number for many years. In 2010, there were five and on 21 May this year, the Cardinal ordained another five: three from the Seminary of the Good Shepherd and two from the Redemptoris Mater seminary.
Father Tony Percy, Rector of the Good Shepherd seminary, says that having some of the younger generation aspire to the priesthood was encouraging and, over time, will help to address the challenge of the shortage of priests in Australia. "There is definitely a renewed interest in the Church and in the priesthood," he said. "World Youth Day in Sydney, 2008, helped."
Elsewhere in New South Wales, there are 20 young men at Vianney College, the diocesan seminary in Wagga Wagga. Among the 20 are candidates from Lismore and Wollongong as well as the host diocese.
In Perth, where numbers have steadily increased since Archbishop Hickey's appointment in 1993, the St Charles Seminary currently has 22 in training (including two on pastoral placement and four in Rome). In addition, the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, run by the Neocatechumenate, has 19 students in residence.
The Holy Spirit Seminary, Banyo, Brisbane, now has 25 in training for Queensland's five dioceses. This is a major improvement on the parlous situation of a just few years ago.
The numbers continue to be encouraging in Melbourne. Father Brendan Lane is Rector of Corpus Christi Seminary in Carlton which caters for Victoria's four dioceses as well as Tasmania. With his wry wit Father Brendan told his Parents and Friends Association recently that as in an Australian Rules team, it is the new players who add interest at the start of each year. In this respect, the seminary scene is similar.
There were 55 men at Corpus Christi in early 2011, eleven of them commencing formation this year: six for Melbourne, two each for the Sale Diocese and Hobart Archdiocese and one for the Military.
The seminarians reflect the changing face of multicultural Australian Catholicism. Around 30 were born in Australia, 12 in Vietnam, two in Africa, two in India, five in the Philippines and one in Korea. Some Vietnamese are being trained for the Church in Vietnam and some will seek Australian residency and citizenship. In their backgrounds, the thirty men born in Australia include many with typical Australian backgrounds, i.e., from the British Isles and Western Europe.
Many 'traditional' Australians whose family backgrounds are in Ireland, Britain or in Western Europe forget sometimes that immigration over the last 20 years has brought increasing numbers of Vietnamese, Filipinos, south Asians and Africans to Australia. Many of these more recent arrivals are Catholics - especially those from the Philippines and Vietnam. Hence, some young men with these backgrounds are in the seminaries.
Adelaide, where the Rostrevor seminary was closed some years ago due to an almost total lack of applicants, now has about five men in training at outside seminaries.
Overall, the mood across Australia continues to be upbeat and confident. Most of the seminarians are in their early- to mid-twenties, with a handful of middle-aged men also in training.
This positive diocesan seminary situation is reflected in the increased numbers of young men seeking admission to religious orders and congregations such as the Missionaries of God's Love, the Franciscans (Capuchins), the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the Dominicans.
Why the increases?
Why the recent surge in priestly vocations?
A major research project from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University was published in the United States eighteen months ago. The research showed clearly and unambiguously that most new vocations in the US are going to orders (and seminaries) that practise and stress more traditional forms of religious life and priestly formation.
This trend is clearly visible in Australia although no comparable research has yet been undertaken. Today's seminaries around the country have been placing added stress on the eternal basics of the spiritual life: the Mass, the Divine Office, solid, time-honoured devotions, and faithfulness to the Church's Magisterium. These have proved a compelling combination for those considering a priestly vocation.
Finally, one should not overlook the key roles of strong and orthodox bishops as well as the good example of devout, zealous parish priests.