Last February, this writer attended an early morning Mass at St Anthony's Shrine, Hawthorn (Melbourne suburb). The parish is served by a Franciscan (Capuchin) community and the Mass was led by the newly-ordained Fr Ben Johnson, one of four Capuchin friars ordained priests over the previous fortnight.
This encouraging scenario is indicative of a generally flourishing priestly vocations scene across Australia that continues into 2013 and has followed the seminary reforms of the past 20 years. Vianney College, Wagga Wagga, was the first Australian seminary to be reformed (in the early 1990s) and Brisbane the last, five years ago.
When Msgr Anthony Randazzo arrived from Rome at the beginning of 2009 to become Rector of Brisbane's Holy Spirit Seminary in Banyo, he was greeted by a mere four seminarians. Since then the progress has been phenomenal.
Msgr Randazzo explains what has occurred: "I have just begun my fifth year as Rector of the Holy Spirit Seminary of Queensland. The growth of the seminary in those five years has been quite remarkable. In 2008, the year before I began as Rector, there were four seminarians. This year I am pleased to say that there are 32, including six First Years. The seminary is full.
"It has been a rewarding time as I have tried to foster a renewed culture of priesthood in the Province. When I arrived as Rector, the first action I took was to introduce Eucharistic Adoration on Thursday evenings. It has been enthusiastically embraced by all of the seminarians. The fruit of this prayer is obvious, Deo gratias."
The Director of Vocations in Brisbane is Army Chaplain, Fr Morgan Batt, a mountaineer and adventurer in his spare time. Fr Batt has developed a residential experience of discernment towards ordained priesthood at a former presbytery at Herston, an inner Brisbane suburb. This is called Canali House, named after one of Brisbane's pioneering priests, Father Joseph Canali.
Canali House enables young men to explore their vocations while sharing daily life with others testing the call. Along with himself as Director, the men share in meals, prayer, Eucharist, pastoral work, sports and household living while going around their regular work often in tertiary studies or working in the community.
At the end of their time residents will make a commitment to enter Holy Spirit Seminary, Banyo, continue discerning, or explore other vocational options.
In addition, Canali House welcomes other men who are discerning their vocations to a monthly forum called "Consilium". This forum is held on the first Thursday of the month and those attending share an evening of Mass, a meal and a meeting. The Archdiocese of Brisbane was a late starter in a systematic search for vocations. It is now a pace setter.
In Sydney, since World Youth Day, 2008, Cardinal George Pell has ordained 25 men for the Archdiocese from his two seminaries: the Good Shepherd Seminary at Homebush and the Redemptoris Mater Seminary at Chester Hill.
As the year opens, the Good Shepherd Seminary has 32 in training, including seven First Years while at the Redemptoris Mater there are 25 men preparing for the ordained ministry, four of whom are joining this year. Overall, five men from both seminaries are preparing to be ordained by Cardinal Pell later this year.
In the Parramatta Diocese, at the Holy Spirit Seminary, there are twelve seminarians, four of whom have just entered to commence training.
The numbers are also encouraging at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne where there are 52 seminarians in residence. Of these 34 are preparing for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, six for Sandhurst Diocese (Bendigo) and five for Sale. The remainder are from other Australian dioceses and one is from the Archdiocese of Hanoi. Eight men commenced training this year with six from Melbourne and one each from Sale and Sandhurst.
There are also three men studying for the ordained ministry at the North American College in Rome and two deacons in Melbourne are awaiting ordination to the priesthood later this year.
Of course, the seminarians throughout the country reflect the changing face of multicultural Australian Catholicism with increasing numbers of Vietnamese, Filipinos, south Asians and Africans.
Elsewhere, there are 23 seminarians at Vianney College, Wagga Wagga, including candidates from Lismore and Armidale as well as the host diocese. There were six new arrivals for this year.
At St Charles Seminary in Perth, there are 20 in training including six who commenced this year. In addition, five of the older seminarians are studying in Rome. Meanwhile, at the Redemptoris Mater (Neo-catechumentate) Seminary there are 18 students for the priesthood.
The positive priestly vocations picture is also reflected in the increasing numbers of young men seeking admission to some religious orders and congregations including the Missionaries of God's Love, the Franciscan (Capuchins), the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter and the Dominicans.
The Missionaries of God's Love, founded in Canberra by Father Ken Barker in 1986, have twelve young men doing a two-year Novitiate in Canberra and an additional 30 preparing for ordination in their seminary at Burwood in Melbourne. The Dominican friars have twelve men in training at their Australian headquarters in Camberwell, also in Melbourne.
Father Tony Percy, Rector of Sydney's Good Shepherd Seminary at Homebush, says that these increasing numbers will gradually address the challenge of the priest shortage in Australia. "There is definitely a renewed interest in the Church and in the priesthood," he says. He believes the World Youth Days in Sydney 2008 and Madrid 2011 have helped and World Youth Day, Rio de Janeiro, this year should accelerate the trend.