Can Australia's seminaries turn the tide?

Can Australia's seminaries turn the tide?

Michael Gilchrist

Statistics for Australia's seminaries indicate no signs of any general upturn in recruitment. The small numbers ordained each year are more than offset by priestly deaths and retirements. Elsewhere, however, more traditionally run seminaries are often attracting numerous vocations. One is prompted to ask whether present-day Australian seminaries as they operate - or are seen to operate - represent something of an obstacle to recruitment. Perhaps it is time Australia learned something from the successes of others.

The eighth general ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops was held in Rome from September 30 to October 28, 1990, with the theme of "the formation of priests" in contemporary circumstances. While, according to the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Barbarito, there has been a gradual increase in vocations in Europe since 1983, the Synod is timely in the light of the lack of priestly recruits in Australia.

In 1967, in Australia, there were 1069 religious and diocesan seminarians in training for the priesthood; by 1984, this figure had fallen to 284 and has shown no signs of general increase since then.

Worldwide, there may have been an increase in recruitment to the religious and secular priesthood, but Western nations, as a whole, have not been a part of this increase, with the notable exception of Poland, where between 1979 and 1986, the number of seminarians increased from 5,845 to 9,742. (Poland has about nine times more Catholics than Australia and on that basis, there should be at least 1000 Australian seminarians instead of the present aggregate of around 300).

It would be simplistic to attribute the low numbers in Australia's seminaries merely to such examples as are cited in this article. Obviously much more information would be needed to make valid generalisations. But the inadequate output of newly ordained priests - some of whom are now leaving the active ministry soon after ordination - is a serious situation which needs to be seriously addressed. For if 'outside' factors - materialism, family breakdown (and smaller families), sexual permissiveness, religious scepticism and secularism - are limiting or hindering vocations, how much stronger would need to be a seminary's stabilising power to counter these factors.


If the 'image' of the modern priest and seminarian as presented in promotional videos, publicity brochures and media reports is predominantly one of mateship, 'searching', 'relevance' and trendiness - generally nebulous - how many young men are likely to commit themselves to six or seven years of intensive, elective study for such future ambiguity, not to mention making the considerable sacrifice of celibacy into the bargain?

More specifically, is the 'new look' Australian seminary, even when trying to look its best, for example in the above publicity picture from a fund-raising brochure, (showing seminarians standing around an altar for Mass, some in thongs, with hands in pockets), or in statements of policy by seminary rectors, or in the comments of newly ordained priests in radio or press interviews a likely invitation to recruitment?

Corpus Christi Seminary, which caters for Victoria and Tasmania, now has approximately 45 in training, with about 12 departures since late last year. The seven priests ordained this year - see the views of three of them in the Documentation - constituted an exceptional number, a more typical figure being three or four per year. Adelaide's St Francis Xavier Seminary, which accommodates students for South Australia and Western Australia, has 26 in training for the diocesan priesthood with two 1990 ordinations, one for South Australia and one for Western Australia. The Sydney seminary at Manly and the St Paul's National Seminary, Kensington, currently hold approximately fifty and forty students, respectively, and have produced only a trickle of ordinations in recent years.

The Pius XII Seminary, Banyo, in Brisbane which serves the five Queensland dioceses and was built 50 years ago to accommodate 130, had an enrolment of 24 during this year (and full-time seminary staff of 123, down from 31 in 1989 and 53 in 1983. The Brisbane Archdiocese, which accounts for at least half the State, has had only one ordination from Banyo since 1987, and on current projections may not have more than one ordination per year up to 1996.

If the results of parish appeals for the Banyo seminary were any indicator of the Catholic community's confidence in today's seminaries there was little cause for comfort. In 1988, a target of $520,000 was set, but the actual amount raised was $195,268, the following year, this amount had fallen to $152,643. The tabloid appeal paper, The Future Times, published in 1990 to promote this year's appeal for funds, was noticeably lacking in information about Banyo's students or their numbers.

This situation needs to be set alongside the picture of Banyo as presented in Brisbane's secular and Catholic press. The picture may be somewhat more 'extreme' in comparison with other Australian seminaries, and possibly sensationalised in the secular press, but it conveys something of the image, accurate or otherwise, which outsiders are likely to receive.

The Brisbane Telegraph's writer, however, (30 October 1981) seemed genuinely surprised at what he found: "When Telegraph reporter Glenn Milne went to live among the cloisters of Pius XII Seminary at Banyo for two days he found trainee priests who drank, swore and challenged the most sacred precepts of the Catholic Church ... The message of the evening seemed clear: Catholic asceticism in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi was for the birds ...". A reporter from The Courier-Mail (26 February 1983) commented: "They look like any other group of young men. Dressed in everything from torn T-shirts to casual dress ... They belong to the slowly evolving new guard of priests."

Seminary courses

Former Rector of Banyo, the late Fr Maurice Duffy, told the Telegraph reporter in 1981 of the seminary courses: "We've got some mind- blowing attempts by modern scholars to articulate the God question, the Man questions, the whole notion of education to faith ... We're answering the real questions in people's lives, not pretending to know what they are ... We've matured into a readiness to listen. The student has a lot to give to the faith-reflected process" and later described Banyo's formation (Catholic Leader, 5 December 1982) as "evermore an attempt to sensitively listen to the raw experience of our day and our lives and, through reflection and discernment, change it into a lived experience of God, still at work in our Church and in our world."

His successor, the present Rector, Fr Frank Lourigan, who like Fr Duffy did not "mourn a downturn in vocations" (Catholic Leader, 1 September 1985), has also expressed his views on seminary formation (Catholic Leader, 16 September 1990): "... his [the priest's] specific gift of ministry, the Sacrament of his ministry, is to give meaning to the many gifts of the communion of the faithful ... He is to recognise the action of the Spirit in the fresh movements among the human communities he is committed to serve ... He is to be comfortable with the uncomfortability of the new human challenges - ecology, women's participation in society and Church, and in the search for effective and just economic and political systems for all humanity ... It is the capacity to live with the ambiguity of a Church in transition that is most required of the priest today; to be able to live with a vision for something new and to work for it ... Many people will be empowered to accept responsibility; many new ministries will flower in ways we have only dreamed about all this time."

The sentiments expressed, insofar as one can interpret them, were markedly similar to those expressed by about-to-be-ordained priests from Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary.

A Banyo Vice-Rector and liturgy lecturer, Fr Barry Copley, expressed his hopes for a 'renewed' liturgy in The Catholic Leader (5 December 1982): "The third stage of liturgical renewal has hardly begun ... In Australia we are struggling to begin this third phase. It is not enough to celebrate the Eucharist exactly as in the Roman Missal. It must be adapted to the needs of various groups ... We have hardly begun to hear the call to genuine liturgical renewal which is not found in books, but in the living sounds and sights of a living people ... The invitation to bold initiatives is urgent!"

Fr Copley as Director of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission has been active in the interior alterations to Brisbane's churches, and most recently to St Stephen's Cathedral. At present Fr Copley is unavailable for comment. It is said he is on extended and indefinite leave of absence.

Radical changes

There is no guarantee that radical changes to the running of Australia's seminaries would effect a dramatic upturn in recruitment. The other factors operating against vocations will not go away. But, clearly, the present drawing and retaining powers of the seminaries as they apparently now operate are minimal. Consequently, there would be nothing to lose in trying out a more traditional approach: more emphasis on the sacredness of the priesthood, the supernatural dimensions of the Mass, the distinctiveness of Catholicism and more overt orthodoxy in theology and spiritual formation.

Examples of where such emphases are succeeding can be found in communities such as the Confraternity of Christ the Priest, whose Melbourne seminary is full, and in the large number of applications for Bishop Brennan's seminary in Wagga Wagga.

They are also found in the United States in the Legionaries of Christ, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and the St Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, where 'tradition' has been linked with satisfactory - even spectacular - levels of recruitment. The Boston-based Oblates of the Virgin Mary, for example, have been active in the United States only since 1978 and already have approximately 180 priests and 250 seminarians in different stages of training. Its apostolates encompass communications, publishing, universities, high schools, running parishes and spiritual formation. The Legionaries of Christ have 200 priests and over 1000 seminarians in training worldwide, with many of them in the United States. In Poland, the total number of priests in the country continues to rise.

Australia's seminary authorities could do worse than examine some of the common characteristics of these and other successful centres of priestly formation with a view to modifying - even altering radically - present practices. Otherwise one might well ask: what is the bottom line to be reached before such action is contemplated? Church authorities certainly owe it to the Catholic people to leave no stone unturned - even a resort to more 'tradition' - to increase recruitment to the priesthood from the present inadequate levels. Or is the Church in Australia already rigidly set on course towards "priestless parishes" run by pastoral associates?

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.