When I commenced my diocesan appointment as Director of Vocations in 1999, there were 18 Melbourne seminarians and about four names on a list of individuals making inquiries about the diocesan priesthood. Now there are 33 Melbourne seminarians, and over 30 names on a list of those interested in the priesthood as a possible vocation. This positive trend has been evident since 1996.
It has been observed that where a diocese is led by a bishop who is strong and public in his pastoral and moral leadership, where his orthodoxy is unambiguous, and where he invests resources into priestly ministry and vocations equal to or greater than lay alternatives, that diocese then tends to attract more young men into the seminary.
At Corpus Christi College last year we organised an inquiry day so that those interested in the diocesan priesthood could spend a day at the seminary and meet the staff and students, and experience the seminary site and program first hand. Forty-three attended. To underscore my point above, nine attended from the Diocese of Sandhurst, which was remarkable for a diocese that has experienced the worst record in Victorian terms of seminary applicants. It was the personal interest and invitation to a number of young men by Sandhurst's new bishop, Joseph Grech, that brought about this good response. The bishop can make all the difference to vocational outcomes.
The calibre of applicants for the most part continues to be high - including secondary college duxes, university graduates (some with master's and/or doctoral degrees) and others with impressive talents and achievements. Not least of all, I continue to be edified by the depth and seriousness of the spirituality, piety and devotional life of the modern seminarian and the typical seminary applicant. I see also the modern trend to co-operate and collaborate with the Church, the Pope and the local Bishop, hand in hand with a desire to learn more from and to defend the Deposit of Faith from the Apostles.
I entered Melbourne's Corpus Christi Seminary in 1986 and can count one hundred others who were either in the seminary when I entered or who entered during the seven years that I was in the seminary until I was ordained in 1992. Of those one hundred over that seven-year period, 55 were ordained for Melbourne, Wagga Wagga, Sale, Sandhurst, Ballarat and Hobart. Of those 55, at last count, 18 have resigned the priesthood, or 33 per cent!
That some left within four years of ordination adds to this tragic figure and gives ground to the belief that the nature of formation was a contributing factor. I believe so, and that is why I was among the unastonished when Archbishop George Pell made seminary reform the first item on his agenda. A stronger and more enduring understanding of the nature and uniqueness of the Catholic priesthood, based on who and what the priest is, and not just what he does functionally, was at the base of the Pelline reforms, and John Paul II's Pastores Dabo Vobis was the map for the reforms.
Among some, there was once a strong notion of the priesthood as being "just another ministry" in the Church, distinguishable only by some of its "functions" being reserved "oppressively" to it and denied to the laity. The priest as a slightly more trained Pastoral Associate or Christian Social Worker are images that are critically used by some of my peers from my seminary days.
Today, where once it was fashionable to throw away the breviary before and after ordination, I now see seminarians praying liturgical hours they are not obliged to pray, or praying outside of time-tabled gatherings. Where once traditional devotions such as the rosary or novenas were ridiculed, they are now prayed with devotion - and not just by seminarians considered "conservative."
At Corpus Christi, it was the students and not the staff that lobbied for the introduction of nightly Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and for a Holy Hour on Sundays that includes Benediction, something unimaginable just six years ago. Where once it was the trend among a number of newly ordained to dissuade parishioners from calling them "Father" and unpopular to wear clerical dress, such "externals" of ordination are seen as being helpful in service and ministry by the typical modern seminarian and newly ordained priest.
Negative reaction against the current trend (referred to by some as "John Paul II's restoration") has come from some of those who were once young and revolutionary in the 1960s and 1970s, but are now ageing.
They are the ones who tend to push the agenda to clericalise the laity in liturgy, to institutionalise priestless parishes as a preferred model of church and not so much as a practical answer to shortages of available priests. Like Professor Maric Joyce of the St Patrick Campus of Australian Catholic University, they are convinced that one of the "benefits" of the (erroneously perceived) shortage of priests is that the Church will be forced to ordain women, as if such perceived shortages are what determine Catholic Faith.
They are the ones feeding the prejudices of some public commentators who insist that a large majority of priests and seminarians are homosexual, most especially the "new conservative breed" loyal to Pope John Paul or the likes of Dr George Pell. Those targeted with such slander can take solace in Matthew 5:11.
Finally, bishops in our region of the world need to heed what Pope John Paul II and Emeritus- Archbishop Frank Little have said about fostering vocations by upholding a priestly culture.
Archbishop Little said at the Chrism Mass of 1995: "Those who prepare for a priestless Church shall have one."
Pope John Paul II, recently addressing the Congregation for Clergy, encouraged the collaboration of the laity with priests, but reminded his audience that only an ordained minister can be a parish priest. Lay people can not "replace" the priest, either as pastor or in his "being" a priest or his pastoral, sacramental and liturgical functions. "The priest celebrates the sacrifice of the Mass and administers the sacraments 'in persona Christi', therefore, for a parish to have a priest as its own pastor is of capital importance, and the title pastor is reserved specifically to the priest."
Poignantly for us in Victoria and Tasmania, the Pope added: "Where there is no priest, it is necessary to ask God insistently with faith to give numerous and holy workers to his vineyard. It would be a fatal error to be resigned to present difficulties and behave, in fact, as though one must prepare for a future Church imagined, virtually, as deprived of priests. Such strategies adopted to fill the present lack, would be highly damaging to the ecclesial community, despite good will."
In Australia, Melbourne is heeding this wisdom - and look at the results!
Fr Paul Stuart is Dean of Studies and Students at Corpus Christi College Seminary, Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and Chaplain to Catholic Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese.