Evangelisation plans put in place up to eight years ago by Rector Monsignor Anthony Randazzo have resulted in a promising turn- around in vocations at Brisbane's Holy Spirit Seminary. The coming years will indicate whether this proves to be a long-term upward trend.
The assertion of Cardinal George Pell's biographer, Tess Livingstone, in October 2006, that Queensand was "by far the worst State in Australia at attracting new priests to its seminary" was very true numerically at the time, but Msgr Randazzo was doing quiet work behind the scenes.
During that time Msgr Randazzo, 42, led the Archbishop's Vocations Task Force that set up the Canali House of discernment in an old presbytery in the heart of Brisbane. There young men could live with the vocations director for six to nine months before entering the seminary.
He also established a school of prayer open to the public where young people gathered, with older people, to pray for vocations through the Lexio Divina, a form of Bible meditation, during Eucharistic Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at St Patrick's Church in Fortitude Valley in the city.
The house of prayer rekindled scenes from his childhood of families and young people flocking to Eucharistic Adoration.
Msgr Randazzo says that today's seminarians still show much enthusiasm for Eucharistic Adoration, "rushing back" for it from their academic studies at Australian Catholic University every Thursday, when they pray for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. They conclude each session with Vespers and Benediction.
He believes this enthusiasm defies the belief of some in the Church that such a practice is old- fashioned: "There's nothing old- fashioned about it; it's embracing what's already there in the Church, praying the Office (the prayer of the Church) morning noon and night, participating in the Mass, then having another personal prayer life on top of that - it glues all the other stuff together."
"I remember Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament fondly from my youth, but I was amazed with the eagerness of today's youth when we started it several years ago. They don't need to be told how to sit and meditate, it comes naturally to them."
He admits that the process of attracting vocations was slow going, but that was because the archdiocese had to first deal with the fact that few youth knew the Gospel itself, let alone the Catechism - a result of the deep-set secularisation of Australian culture.
That's why vocations work is "a vitally important ministry [and] really good things are coming," the Monsignor says.
"Up here, we've been working on strongly for eight years. It's taking a long time to sow the seeds, but we have a young generation of youth who aren't familiar with the Church."
When Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opened and blessed the new Holy Spirit Seminary in April last year, it had eight resident students, including five Nigerians.
This year, Holy Spirit has a full house with 16 students, including nine first-years, seven of whom are from Queensland. The other two are from Nigeria as part of an arrangement with the Nigerian Umahia Diocese.
A further six Queenslanders have already enquired about entering in 2010. Msgr Randazzo, who succeeded Fr Michael McCarthy as Rector this year, is currently negotiating with architects to construct a second building to accommodate the continued expected surge in numbers.
A lay vocations promotions officer, Mark Lysaght, promotes vocations while the vocations director, who is yet to be appointed after Fr Ian Wren recently finished his term, focuses on spiritual direction.
The increase in vocations and in awareness of God shows that some of today's youth are "fed up with the secular nature of the world and are turning to the richness of the tradition that we have. I love it too," Msgr Randazzo says.
"Due to the Australian secular phenomenon, we're not just catechising people but we're evangelising, as some youth don't know the Gospel let alone the Catechism."
"Meeting youth and teaching and preaching the gospel, bit by bit we introduce them to the Church, and in doing so they ask all kinds of questions, and that's when you start catechising them. You can't do that overnight in a very secular society. It's the Holy Spirit that does the work, not us."
World Youth Day
Msgr Randazzo has found during both his time as vocations director and seminary Rector that seminarians and people asking questions about the priesthood are people in their mid- to late- 20s who have either gone to a World Youth Day or to Rome on pilgrimage and have returned "asking tough questions about their life".
Once the young men decide on the seminary, they enter a study environment modelled on several institutions in Rome like the Capranica, one of the oldest seminaries in the world, where students live at the seminary and travel to the theological college for their academic formation. This system, which other Australian seminaries follow, has changed from the days Msgr Randazzo studied in the 1980s, when the seminary contained everything.
Queensland's seminary was first established as Pius XII Seminary in 1941 to service the dioceses of Brisbane, Cairns, Rockhampton, Toowoomba and Townsville. In 2001 the seminary was transferred to Wavell Heights until Cardinal Levada opened and blessed the new buildings last year.
Anthony Barich writes for 'The Record', the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth, WA.