The steady increase in Australian seminarians noted over the past few years has continued in 2005. Since the low points of recruitment in 1996, intakes in both Melbourne and Sydney have increased steadily, as elsewhere.
The Rector of Sydney's Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Bishop Julian Porteous, informed me that there are now 42 students in residence, the largest number for many years. This includes a 2005 intake of ten for the Archdiocese of Sydney, as well as one candidate for Canberra-Goulburn, one for Wollongong and another for a Burmese diocese.
Overall, 30 of the 42 seminarians are attached to the Sydney Archdiocese, two to Lismore, two to Wollongong, two to Canberra-Goulburn, two to Adelaide, three to the Burmese diocese and one to a Polish order in Australia.
The Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney is under the jurisdiction of Cardinal George Pell. The other two dioceses covering parts of the Sydney metropolitan area - Parramatta and Broken Bay - make their own arrangements and have no candidates currently residing at the Good Shepherd Seminary.
Within the Sydney Archdiocese, the recently established Redemptoris Mater Sydney (or Archdiocesan Missionary seminary), operated by the the Neocatechumenate, with 50 missionary seminaries worldwide, has 16 seminarians for 2005.
According to the Rector, Fr Eric Skruzny, there are students from Australia, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, Paraguay, Ecuador, India, and several other countries. This, he says, underlines the Neocatechumenate's focus on the universality of the Church. On ordination, its priests will serve for several years in the Sydney Archdiocese before being assigned to other parts of the world.
Elsewhere in New South Wales, Vianney College in the Wagga Wagga Diocese continues to attract recruits for the priesthood. This year there are at least seven seminarians in training for the diocese - an impressive figure given its relatively small size. Since its founding in 1992 by Bishop Brennan, the seminary has contributed 25 priests, most of whom are serving in the Wagga Wagga Diocese.
Wagga Wagga enjoys the best ratio of priests to Catholic population in the country and has the youngest average age for its priests.
Before major reforms occurred at the Melbourne and Sydney seminaries, many students from outside Wagga Wagga opted to train there.
Fr Peter Thompson CM, the Rector of Vianney College, comments: "The founding of Vianney College in 1992 can be seen as the beginning of a process of reform that has been taken up by other seminaries. Much of this reform was outlined by Pope John Paul II in Pastores dabo vobis, published a few weeks after this seminary was inaugurated.
"My recent visits to other seminaries gave me some valuable insights into the formation of priests which I have introduced here, but I also noted that many of the reforms I witnessed have been part of our policy from the beginning."
In Perth, the St Charles Seminary has 22 students for 2005, five of whom are new. Of the 22 students, three are for the Diocese of Geraldton and the remainder for the Archdiocese of Perth.
Perth's Neocatechumenate-run Redemptoris Mater Seminary has 18 students for 2005, including four new entrants. Since 1997 a total of 20 priests have been ordained from this seminary.
These figures are impressive, given Perth's Catholic population. Archbishop Hickey's leadership and example have clearly contributed to the upsurge in priestly vocations over the past decade.
In Melbourne, where major reforms to priestly formation at Corpus Christi College took place in late 1996, numbers have continued to increase, with ten new seminarians entering for 2005 - all for the Melbourne Archdiocese. Melbourne's Corpus Christi Seminary is a regional one covering all Victorian dioceses as well as Tasmania, with jurisdiction shared by the bishops of these dioceses.
Of the total of 41 seminarians at Corpus Christi, 30 are for the Melbourne Archdiocese (with an additional one studying in Rome), four are for the Sandhurst Diocese, one each for Ballarat, Sale, Bathurst (NSW) and a Vietnamese diocese, and none from Tasmania.
Figures for Queensland's dioceses were not to hand when this issue went to press, although two approaches were made to the Brisbane Vocations Centre. From my other inquiries, I understand there is one seminarian in training in Brisbane for each of the Townsville and Rockhampton dioceses and no new candidates for Brisbane Archdiocese in 2005.
Not to be overlooked in considering the likely number of available priests in the future are those in formation for Australia's around 40 religious orders, such as the Dominicans, Oblates and Missionaries of God's Love.
According to the current Catholic Directory there were all told 26 in formation for the religious priesthood in Australia in 2004.
A figure is available for the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, which celebrates the traditional Latin Liturgy. It has five students for the priesthood for 2005 and a presence in Melbourne, Sydney, Parramatta and Canberra.
The former Director of Vocations in Melbourne, Fr Paul Stuart, told The Australian that the average age of incoming students was "getting younger" at "around 27" with some being "school leavers or just out of university". Significantly, Fr Stuart pointed out: "These new seminarians are different in that they seem to have fewer problems with the authority of the Church."
If present trends continue, the steady influx of young, orthodox priests will have a significant and beneficial impact on the character of the Catholic Church in Australia during coming decades.