According to the Vatican's 'Statistical Year Book of the Church' for 1996, Catholic seminaries worldwide have been continuing to show an overall increase in recruits. The number of men in the final stages of preparation for the priesthood in 1995 stood at 105,000, a 74% increase on 1970 figures. However, the increases have been uneven, with Africa posting a 400% increase and South America 250%. Other increases have occurred in India and Eastern Europe. In the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australasia, however, the picture is far less encouraging.
This was emphasised by a news item in Brisbane's 'Courier Mail' which reported that there were no new candidates for the priesthood at Brisbane's Banyo Seminary from all of Queensland's five dioceses.
Not one single new recruit entered the Pius XII Seminary, Banyo, for the 1997 academic year.
This is the culmination of a period of steady decline generally typical of all of Australia's larger seminaries. The Banyo seminary in Brisbane serves all five Queensland dioceses and in recent years has been attracting a bare handful of admissions. The current complement for all levels of the seminary's ordination program was 20 according to a Courier Mail report.
At the same time, the small diocese of Wagga Wagga (NSW) begins 1997 with at least 17 diocesan students for the priesthood at its more traditionally run seminary, plus three studying in Rome. In addition, there are nine students from the Confraternity of Christ the Priest studying at the seminary, four of whom were to be ordained to the priesthood in late February plus one for the order of St Paul the First Hermit.
However, Banyo's Rector, Fr John Chalmers, was reported in the Courier Mail as looking on the positive side. He said the zero intake for 1997 was "not a cause for alarm" as at the same time there were more than 100 people registered for this year for theological study at Banyo and "many of those could opt to enter the ordination program later." Whether or not this proves to be the case in future, it appears that not many of such people have done so in the recent past to judge from Banyo's modest overall numbers.
But there has been no sign of any radical rethinking - in the light of this situation - about the present 'liberal' mode of seminary training prevailing at Banyo and other major Australian seminaries, as compared with the relative successes of more traditional style training programs.
Prominent Catholic psychologist and writer, Ronald Conway, commented on "the seeming complacency of Banyo seminary rector Father J Chalmers" in a letter to The Australian (31.1.97):
"The absence of first-year students at Banyo in 1997 is hardly to be met by lay people taking courses in theology. Motives for such study may range from a healthy curiosity to mere one-upmanship (or womanship). Even unbelievers could study theology as dabblers.
"On the other hand, priests are not presently assumed to be higher, holier or better than the laity. But they have been consecrated for the special role of intermediary between the people and Christ.
"To lose sight of this basic notion is simply to misunderstand the apostolic tradition and reduce the priesthood to a kind of higher social work.
"Fundamental ignorance as much as any other factor is what is keeping young men out of the Catholic seminaries, the stumbling block of celibacy notwithstanding.
"For this the galloping secularisation to be found in too many Catholic homes and schools - daily fed by the scepticism of a virtually heathen society - could well be blamed."
However, this pattern seems set to change, at least in Melbourne. Late last year, just a few months after the appointment of Dr George Pell as the new Archbishop, the Bishops of Victoria and Tasmania decided that there should be a different type of religious formation at the seminary from the one used in recent years. The secular press subsequently reported on the mass resignation of the seminary staff of Corpus Christi College, which caters for all Victorian and Tasmanian dioceses.
This unprecedented action was taken in response to the proposed reforms which were to begin in 1997. These were based on a pastoral letter of Pope John Paul II and included increased periods of retreat, changes to daily devotions, more meditation and recollection and a more intensive study of the Church's forms of public worship. The reforms had been unanimously approved by the seminary trustees, which include all the bishops of Victoria and Tasmania.
The seminary rector, Fr Paul Connell, indicated to the Melbourne Herald Sun that the staff were not willing to run the seminary in a "new style", one of the departing staff members being quoted as saying that the proposals were a "subtle vote of no confidence" in the existing administration and its operations. The move to a "stricter and more regulatory regime was not welcomed by the staff".
It is perhaps some commentary on the staff and their approach to seminary training that they found the prospect of closer conformity to Papal policy in this regard a vote of "no confidence" in their previous running of the seminary. And is it even the case that those seminary authorities favouring a more 'liberal' approach are actually content to accept a continuing fall in numbers of recruits to the priesthood as the price of 'progress' - even to the extent of Banyo's zero intake?
In the meantime in some dioceses over the past few years there has been considerable activity underway in formulating blueprints for new structures and training programs designed to facilitate more lay participation in priestly duties - even to the extent of celebrating communion services in "priestless parishes". The December 1996 edition of Ballarat's Our Diocesan Community newsletter reported on a meeting of pastoral associates late last year: "The focus of the gathering was on personal growth within our ministries and re-vitalisation for our work in the parishes. We were aware that, as we met, the Taskforce Report A Shoot Will Spring was being presented to the priests of the Diocese and we look forward to the roles we will be called upon to play in the successful implementation of such a plan."
The Report accepts the inevitability of a long-term priest shortage and proposes various rationalisation procedures including "clusters" of parishes sharing priests, with more lay people running communion services in-between. There is no hint of any serious re-thinking about approaches to vocations promotion, improved education on the meaning of the priesthood in Catholic schools or a review of seminary training. Indeed, a recent meeting of the Ballarat Diocesan Council of Priests seemed hostile to the latter idea (see foot of this article) despite the chronic lack of recruits to the priesthood from Ballarat.
An accompanying photograph in the Our Diocesan Community report showing seventeen of the Ballarat pastoral associates, includes only one male, and the age level appears to be predominantly 'senior'.
Such developments - typical of much of Australia - fly in the face of the correlation in not a few dioceses, seminaries, and religious orders (in Australia and overseas), between larger numbers of recruits and a more traditional, spiritually-oriented, strongly orthodox approach. The relative success of the Wagga Wagga diocese's small seminary is one Australian example. Another appears to be Perth's revived seminary under Archbishop Hickey.
A recent report in The Irish Family (20.12.96) noted that the relatively small Cloyne diocese had the largest number of students for the priesthood and new admissions out of all of Ireland's 26 dioceses. According to Cloyne's Chancellor and Diocesan Secretary, Fr William Bermingham, the students who went on for the priesthood gave two reasons influencing their decision: "Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration in their parishes and the number of visits by their bishop." Cloyne's Bishop John Magee (formerly the Pope's private secretary) was one of the first bishops in Ireland to introduce Eucharistic Adoration in an organised way (in 1988) aimed specifically at encouraging vocations. The practice is now widespread among Cloyne's parishes.
Some Catholics may be at a loss to understand the "not a cause for alarm" reported comment of Banyo's rector to the zero recruits situation. Is it that some elements in the Church actually prefer congregations run by lay people to parishes run by priests?
This, at least, would make some sense of the "no cause for alarm" type of response.