The December 2000 edition of Our Diocesan Community, the western Victorian diocese of Ballarat's official publication, included a report by Fr John Fitzgerald, Director of the Pastoral Planning Office, on a visit by himself and Fr Gerry Baldock to the Townsville Diocese. The purpose of the visit was to learn how that diocese was coping "with the question of leadership due to their declining number of priests."
Some Ballarat Catholics were surprised their diocese had to venture to distant liberal Townsville, one of the most hard-pressed dioceses in Australia, in terms of low Mass attendances, few priests and next to no seminarians.
Much closer to home was the small diocese of Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales, where Bishop Brennan had set up his own seminary and enjoyed a degree of success over the past decade in addressing the vocations crisis. Wagga Wagga priests have even been made available to other dioceses.
The same edition of Our Diocesan Community included a report that Father Jose Marins and "his Team from Brazil" would be in the Diocese between 29 April and 9 May 2001 to provide insights on developing lay leadership in the absence of priests.
These moves suggested the Ballarat Diocese was accepting a scenario of fewer and fewer priests and more and more parish lay leaders.
Certainly, like many other Australian dioceses, Ballarat has long been aware of the direction of its priest numbers: it is estimated the present 43 available clergy for the 52 Ballarat parishes could fall to as few as 15 by the year 2010. And for some years, it has been committed to a "lay leadership" solution to the clergy shortfall - aggravated by continuing numbers leaving the active priesthood.
Hence, Bishop Peter Connors, following his appointment in 1996, has faced daunting leadership challenges, including several serious clerical child- abuse cases, and a consequent demoralisation of many of the clergy.
In addition, since the 1970s, the diocese had evolved into one of the more liberal in Australia. For liberals, the differences between ordained priests and baptised lay people are less fundamental.
Such an approach tends to worsen the problem, sending negative signals to young men contemplating the priesthood: for if the priesthood is ultimately more-or-less dispensable, why accept the sacrifices of a priestly life? According to recent research in the US, most seminarians prefer to serve, where possible, in strongly orthodox rather than in more liberal dioceses.
Two of the five Ballarat men currently training for the priesthood have opted to serve in the Melbourne Archdiocese, while one has gone to liberal Adelaide for his training, although the seminary there has closed for this year due to lack of numbers.
The challenge for bishops facing a worsening clergy shortage - especially in large rural dioceses like Ballarat - is that the "tyranny of distance" has made the continuing provision of priests for weekly Masses in less populated areas a physical impossibility. Compromise measures, such as lay-led services on some weekends, have become increasingly common.
However, it is a quite different matter to find - as appears to be the case in Ballarat - the Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) converting such "band-aid" measures into a broad strategy for the indefinite future.
Catholics suspecting such a strategy as Protestantism by stealth might be less concerned were the same zeal evident in efforts to pinpoint the secrets of success of other Australian and overseas dioceses, facing similar constraints and problems to Ballarat, yet proving more successful in attracting priestly recruits.
Recent developments in the Ballarat Diocese, however, suggest that such an approach is not part of the agenda.
Previously, a parishioner from Timboon had arranged for that region's delegate to the Ballarat DPC to present a submission on the priest shortage - asking why Ballarat was not seeking ideas from Perth, Wagga Wagga and Melbourne.
The DPC responses to that submission, as later summarised for the Timboon Parish by the delegate, revealed an apparent determination to discredit at all costs any successes in those dioceses, so absolving Ballarat of any need to review its current policy emphasis.
It was said: "The reason for not taking the increased number of priests in a particular diocese at face value is complex, as one is not always sure about a particular diocese's vision of church."
The implication here appeared to be that the "successes" of any diocese with a different "vision of church" from Ballarat's should be disregarded.
This was further highlighted by a number of inaccurate or misleading claims made about the dioceses of Perth, Wagga Wagga and Melbourne and their relative successes in attracting vocations. It was alleged Melbourne Archdiocese and its seminary had "a big Asian bias, which would not be suited to our monoculture" and that "screening of recruits is not very intense."
Screening of recruits
In fact, only four of Melbourne's present 26 seminarians are of Asian extraction, while the screening of recruits is thorough, with one or two psychologists and up to three priests interviewing each applicant. In 2000, only eight of 22 who formally applied were admitted to the Corpus Christi Seminary for the Melbourne Archdiocese, and only six of 16 for 2001.
It was said of Perth that "many of the recruits come from the Philippines" who are "mature aged and only committed to stay two years." In fact, these Filipinos are only a portion of the Neo Catechumenate seminary in Perth, whose newly ordained priests do serve for a limited period in the Archdiocese. The diocesan seminary, which is separate, is quite successful in its own right, as Archbishop Hickey outlined in a recent AD2000 article (August 2000, p. 3).
Reference to Ballarat's "mono-culture" (and the consequent inappropriateness there of Asian priests) sat strangely with the decision to bring a Brazilian Team to enlighten the Diocese on lay leadership possibilities.
If one had to go overseas for ideas, why not, for example, invite a Team from the thriving Denver Archdiocese of Archbishop Chaput to discover its formula for success?
Lay-led services may be an unavoidable fact of life in many Australian dioceses, including Ballarat, but any future growth in priestly vocations will depend on the establishment and cultivation of more fertile seed-beds of solid orthodox Catholicism.