The number of seminarians in training for the diocesan priesthood in Australia is a small fraction of what prevailed up to the 1960s, and represents one of the world's worst declines since Vatican II. Australia's larger seminaries are virtually empty, with numbers now built up by lay theology students.
Last April, the pastor of a flourishing Texas parish, Fr Timothy E. Deeter, visiting Australia for a number of Marian conferences, took the opportunity to observe at close hand the condition of Australia's seminaries and the views of seminarians or young men wishing to enter them. His observations are a strong indictment of the present system of seminary training (barring a couple of exceptions) and call for prompt, radical reforms in line with Church requirements, if the continuing slide is to be arrested and reversed.
As Fr Deeter points out, there is no lack of vocations, but many potential recruits are deterred by their knowledge of what is occurring inside the seminaries.
Catholics in many countries are concerned about the impending shortage of priests, and Australian Catholics share in that concern. Various dioceses are already mapping out strategies for the future. One diocese has published a report [Tomorrow's Church], approved by the local bishop, which suggests the usual ideas of merging parishes together or having one priest serve two parishes.
Interestingly enough, the report has relatively little to say about vocations recruitment and nothing to say concerning the present condition of seminary programs. I learned quite a bit about both during my participation in four Marian conferences held in Australia this past April.
It is not unusual for me to meet one or two vocations prospects when I speak at conferences in the United States. I was not prepared, however, for the number of young Australian men who came to me to discuss their possible calling to the priesthood - about two dozen of them! These were friendly, personable, devout men in their twenties, who were ready to enter the seminary. And all of them had the same question: which seminary? This question was not asked out of naivete or ignorance. Each man expressed his personal concern about liberal leanings in the local seminaries. These men already had done their research - vocation weekends, seminary visits, and discussions with seminarian friends. Two men had previously entered seminaries and then dropped out after a month or so.
As it turned out, I was able to glean first-hand information about preparation for the priesthood in Australia. In one city we were housed at the local seminary, while in another I had lunch and extensive conversation with a group of seminarians. And even though I have my own war-stories to tell, having survived my 'training' in one of America's most liberal schools of theology, I was nevertheless surprised and saddened to learn what is happening in some of Australia's seminaries.
I was ordained in 198I. I should have been ordained several years earlier, but I was held up because I was considered "too sacramentally oriented" and not enough interested in political activism such as "Iceberg lettuce boycotts". Oh, well, I was finally ordained and the "boycott boys" weren't; God is good. And like all experiences of my past, the painful and lonely experience of surviving a liberal training for the priesthood has made me especially sensitive to those who are interested in ordained ministry. Perhaps that is why so many young men are drawn to confide in me their hopes and fears about their futures.
At least when I was in the seminary we prayed Morning and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours every day. In one Australian formation program, they omit Lauds and Vespers and instead have centering prayer for twenty minutes in the morning and evening. I have several objections to this:
1. The Liturgy of the Hours is part of a man's commitment at ordination to the diaconate - it should be part of training for Holy Orders.
2. Even Christ-centred centering prayer, as opposed to self-centred centering prayer, requires more than twenty minutes if it is going to be done well.
3. There are plenty of Catholic forms of meditation and contemplation which could and should be taught to seminarians before branching off into forms of Eastern mysticism.
Australian seminarians who kneel during their prayers or who genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament are, in some places, reprimanded for making a "political statement." Those who fast on Wednesdays or Fridays are advised not to do so, since their fasting is considered "divisive" at table. Some who choose to receive Holy Communion on the tongue are questioned about their choice and told to "think about it."
From reports I received, devotion to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is non-existent, despite the advice of countless saintly spiritual directors saying a priest needs daily time in adoration of the Eucharistic Lord. Honour to Our Lady is likewise nowhere to be found, except at one place where Mary's gospel canticle, the Magnificat, is prayed on feast days after centering prayer in the evening. Daily Mass seems to be hit and miss - apparently it alternates with morning or evening prayer!
When I was in the seminary, those of us who wore clerical dress on occasions were tolerated but not condemned. An Australian priest at one of the seminaries, however, publicly told the students that Father Stephen Barham and I were "fundamentalists" because we wore clerical dress and were involved with the Marian Conference. This same priest, who never spoke with any of the conference speakers, also announced that we were going to consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. "It's so bad," he cracked, "that they haven't asked the world if it wants to be consecrated."
On one bulletin board in a seminary I read an excerpt from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, comparing the earlier proposed inclusive-language text with the approved version. Below the text were posted a number of critical letters from faculty and students. No positive or supportive statements were to be found.
On another bulletin board was the description of a new course, "Feminist Perspectives of the Church" which proposed alternative views and models of the Church, with an eye to the future."
In one seminary, several 'orthodox' students dutifully consult with their assigned in-house spiritual director. But once a month they go outside the seminary to meet with their true spiritual director, a priest whom they trust to give them sound advice.
I met a young deacon who had been advised to "lie low" during formation and to wait until he was a priest to reveal his true spiritual self. Several seminarians likewise were trying to "go along with the program" while maintaining a sense of integrity.
In all cases they were discovered and persecuted for their beliefs.
This is what I learned about liberals while I was in the seminary, and it seems to be the same in Australia: liberals want everyone to be "free" - to believe as they do. One is not free to practise traditional devotions unharrassed. Those students who meet on their own to pray the rosary, or to conduct their own holy hours, are often times mocked by priests as well as fellow students. Those who exercise their canonical right of choice of methods of receiving the Host, are summoned before an authority figure and challenged.
As I told a few priests, when I was a seminarian, "The faculty talks a good Vatican II game, but it sure knows how to play by Vatican I rules - you are just as much experts on power and authority, rigidity and repression, as the old- timers you condemn!"
As for the young men not yet in the seminaries - they are no dummies. They don't want to enter their own diocese's programs because they know they won't fit in. But they can't go to the one or two good seminaries in Australia with the approval of their own bishops. In other words, they would have to give up any idea of future ministry in their home dioceses. Some are considering religious life, but that poses its own problems: not all are called to be religious, and few communities in Australia seem to have a solid spiritual and communal life anymore.
A large number of these young men asked me about the possibility of study in America. Even if it were possible to enter a good college or major seminary program in the United States (and there are a few), most Australian bishops would not sponsor a student to study outside his home diocese.
I strongly believe that the Church has no shortage of vocations: what we have is a problem in many seminaries, Australian and American. And the seeds of the many future problems in the priesthood and in the Church are being planted in these "seed plots" (which is what "seminary" means) - a disdain for or lack of commitment to the official prayer of the Church, an absence of strong faith in the Eucharist, a tendency to belittle or altogether ignore Our Lady, an indifference to the public witness of clerical dress, and a passing-over of the Church's rich tradition of forms of personal prayer in favour of New Age faddism.
This tour of Marian conferences became a personal pilgrimage which raised a number of issues and questions in my mind. I know that I did not meet those two dozen young Catholic men for only a chance encounter - there were far too many of them, and the stories were all the same.
With acknowledgment to 'The Medjugorje Magazine'.