Statistics of enrolment numbers over the period from 1972 to 2002 at Melbourne's Corpus Christi Seminary - currently available on its website - provide a useful basis for analysis. (Corpus Christi accommodates students for the Melbourne Archdiocese, the three other Victorian dioceses, as well as Tasmania).
An obvious feature of the graph below is the steep decline that has occurred from the high point in 1972 of 148 Corpus Christi seminarians (100 for Melbourne Archdiocese and 48 for rural Victoria and Tasmania) to a low point in 1996 of 21 students (including 12 for Melbourne). No doubt there are many explanations for this, not least smaller families and the inroads of secularism and materialism. Nor have divisions and controversies within the Church helped.
Yet despite these and other factors, the present graph also indicates an encouraging upturn.
Since 1996, the number of recruits for the Melbourne Archdiocese has increased significantly for the first time since the original decline set in - from 12 to 31 in 2002. And the number of inquiries continues to grow thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Vocations office (see opposite page), offering promise of further steady increases.
It is no secret that the overall number of students for the priesthood in Australia's Catholic seminaries has been in steep decline since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The position, of course, has varied from seminary to seminary and diocese to diocese, but broadly speaking, it has reflected that in other Western-style countries like the US, Canada, the UK and Western Europe.
On a worldwide basis, however, particularly during the present pontificate, the numbers of seminarians and priests (both religious and diocesan) have actually been increasing. If the affluent West continues to experience general decline, the growth in the Second and Third Worlds, e.g., Africa, Latin America, India, the Philippines and South Korea, has more than compensated for this.
In Australia, as elsewhere in the West, the responses to the growing shortfall in active clergy to staff parishes have varied considerably. In some dioceses, the emphasis seems to have been less on finding effective ways to attract recruits than on giving an air of permanence to stop-gap measures like lay-led Communion services (admittedly unavoidable in some circumstances), which send the wrong signals to potential priestly vocations.
While Australia does not contain the extremes to be found in the US, as graphically portrayed in Michael Rose's recent disturbing book Goodbye, Good Men, it has followed a similar pattern as far as the relative successes of dioceses and seminaries are concerned.
A host of factors can no doubt determine the varying levels of seminary numbers, including broad cultural factors in society. However, where a diocese is seen to be led by a bishop, who strongly encourages vocations to the priesthood and religious life and is forthright in his espousal of Catholic teachings, with its seminary situation (if it has a seminary) reflecting that view, the number of seminarians will be relatively high. In addition, at the "coal face", the witness of inspirational, holy priests will remain a necessary complement to this scenario.
A significant number of US and Australian dioceses - as has been regularly pointed out in this journal over recent years - have been defying the general downward trend. As the late Cardinal Oddi once observed in the present context, it is not so much a vocations shortage, as a response shortage. If the spiritual soil of family, parish, diocese and seminary is fertile, the vocation 'seed' is more likely to take root.
The impact of the increase in seminary numbers should begin to be felt in the next few years. The four ordinations for Melbourne this year are reflective of the situation prior to 1996.