In two of Victoria's regional dioceses priests have been expressing - almost simultaneously - organised opposition to the reforms due to take effect in Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary.
The Ballarat Diocesan Council of Priests minutes for a 4 December 1996 meeting at which the Bishop and 17 priests were present provides a predominantly critical summary of comments made about the seminary reforms. One read: "If the Archbishop of Melbourne can 'railroad' through changes at the seminary, where will it stop? Are we in a position to do anything?" and "[It] appears that the Archbishop of Melbourne is now running the Victorian and Tasmanian Church."
Concern was expressed about the "sort of Theology" that might be taught at Corpus Christi and "what kind of person will now want to enter the seminary?" Suggested solutions to this included "a preparatory program in the diocese" for Ballarat's students "before they go to the seminary" or even "options for our students other than the seminary." One priest asked "should an alternative be found for Ballarat seminary students?"
Bishop Mulkearns observed at this point that while he "would not consider pulling Ballarat students out of the regional seminary at this stage without giving the changes a chance, if in the future it is evident that the seminary is not good for Ballarat students, then the Diocese must look at the issue again. The Trustees [bishops] get a say in who will be employed at the seminary."
A motion was then carried unanimously: "That the Council of Priests recommends that the Bishop set up a body of competent people in the Diocese to review the priestly formation needs of the Diocese and report to the Bishop with recommendations by July 1997 considering:
- the special needs of rural clergy
- a future of collaborative ministry
- the on-going life-long nature of human, spiritual and professional formation of priests in ministry and being open to draw on the theological resources within the Province or wider, as required."
Given that at the end of 1996 there was just one student at the Corpus Christi seminary for the Ballarat Diocese, one might have thought there would be some degree of concern about a framework marked by an almost total absence of recruits. This state of affairs was underlined by an earlier report in the minutes from the Vocations Committee which stated that the "Day of Discovery" scheduled for several regional centres had been "cancelled due to [the] very small interest shown." The solitary Day of Discovery held in Horsham attracted just five people.
Similar sentiments were voiced in a second of Victoria's three rural dioceses. A copy of a letter sent by Fr John O'Kelly, Chairman of the Council of Priests of the Diocese of Sale, to Archbishop Pell on 4 December 1996, was circulated to the priests of the diocese by Bishop Jeremiah Coffey along with a letter To All Priests in the Diocese (dated 20 December).
The O'Kelly letter informed Dr Pell that a Meeting of the Diocese of Sale Council of Priests had instructed him to write of their concern about the reforms to the seminary: "We have a concern ... that your reported comments to the press do less than justice to the staff and students of Corpus Christi". The letter questioned whether the "high rate of attrition of younger priests from the active ministry" was due to "their seminary formation" rather than "the quality of support experienced by these priests."
In his accompanying letter, Bishop Coffey wrote: "Although I did not see the letter sent to Archbishop G. Pell from the Council of Priests, I agree with its sentiments. I enclose the letter."