Sydney seminary growth based on orthodoxy, fidelity

Sydney seminary growth based on orthodoxy, fidelity

Fr Julian Porteous

Fr Porteous is Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Strathfield, which trains future priests for the Sydney Archdiocese and other Sydney and NSW dioceses.

Since his appointment to Sydney, Archbishop George Pell has given the seminary top priority and his full support. Numbers there have been steadily increasing since 2001, with around 40 likely to be in the seminary for 2003.

At the US Cardinals' meeting with the Pope on 22-23 April 2002, it was proposed that the Holy See undertake an apostolic visitation of US seminaries. This visitation (an inspection by bishops) was an expression of the concern felt in the Vatican about certain issues related to priestly formation, following the allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Some recently published books have raised questions regarding the suitable preparation of men for priestly ministry. Michael Rose's Goodbye, Good Men has made some bold accusations about vocations committees' and seminary formation staffs' attitude towards encouraging the vocations of men committed to the Church's teaching. As well, the question of the presence of a gay subculture in some seminaries was raised.

Donald Cozzens' book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, also raised a number of issues confronting both priests and seminarians in the contemporary North American Church. He mentions the "vocation crisis", the "gay crisis" and the "authority crisis" among others and paints a rather pessimistic picture of the state of the priesthood.

Scrutiny of seminaries

The year 2002 has been a very difficult year for priests and for the confidence and trust of the Catholic people in their priests. While the vast majority of priests faithfully serve the Church and their people, the constant media scrutiny, the accusations of serious sexual impropriety and the steady stream of negative comments cannot but undermine the morale of both clergy and laity.

In this environment, the quality of seminary formation has come under close scrutiny. The Pope has requested an investigation. Most priests have a natural concern as to what sort of clergy seminaries are preparing for the future; equally, they wonder what approaches are being taken to these critical issues in seminary programs. Many lay Catholics are vitally interested in these matters and are asking significant questions.

George Weigel, in his 2002 book, The Courage to be Catholic, addresses some searching questions about seminary formation. His questions range from recruitment and screening, to the character of the education for chastity, and to questions about the approach taken to the issue of homosexuality. He also raises questions concerning the maintenance of theological orthodoxy.

The Catholic people have a right to ask these questions. They have a right to be answered and be reassured that the seminary formation programs are on the right track - forming priests sound in their faith, sexuality and dedication to the priestly life.

Observations

With these opening comments I would like to offer some observations on the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney. These are made by one who was a parish priest in 2001 and has just completed one year in a new and challenging environment of being rector of a seminary.

Coming to something new from another experience provides immediate impressions and can facilitate fresh insights that may be useful. At the same time, I am conscious that these initial impressions and insights have come in the midst of the turbulence and controversy mentioned at the beginning of this article.

One immediate impression was what appeared to be a new type of seminarian, compared with this writer's memories of his class in the late 1960s. Seminarians of that era generally came to the seminary directly after completing high school and vocations were often fostered in Catholic families where there were a greater number of children.

Today's seminarians enter at a later age, often the mid-20s and beyond (a number are in their 40s). They come from smaller family units, and one detects a reluctance among some families for their sons to pursue their vocations. Some young men never enter because of adverse family responses.

A number of these vocations appear not so much to emerge from a general solid Catholic culture fostered in home, parish and school, but rather out of a personal conviction of faith akin to conversion. These are a "post-postmodern" generation, who have embraced a Catholicism that provides a solid grounding and focus for their lives in the midst of a relativised ethical and social culture experienced in the world around them. They look particularly to Pope John Paul II, the only pope they have ever known, as representing what they seek from the Church - strong and courageous ideals, a countercultural ethical position, and a strongly transcendental vision of faith.

Hope for future

The New Faithful, a book by Colleen Carroll, documents this phenomenon and the emergence of a generation of young Catholics with an idealism and a hope for the future of Catholicism. She has subtitled her book, "Why young adults are embracing Christian Orthodoxy". An article by the Academic Dean of Mount Saint Mary's Seminary of the West, Richard Marzheuser, titled "A new generation is on the rise in seminaries", also reflects on this phenomenon. He comments on their spirit - "they are motivated, they are energetic and full of ideals and I do not expect their zeal for the Faith or the Church to die out any time soon".

Theirs is a faith that wants the assurance of the clarity of teaching found in the Catholic Catechism. Theirs is a love of the liturgy as an act of worship of Almighty God. They want to be unashamedly Catholic and are willing and prepared to declare this to the world.

One other aspect of today's seminarians is that many have emerged from the multicultural character of the Church in Australia. Increasingly the face of the Church in a city like Sydney is becoming Asian. For instance, the Archdiocese now has a number of Vietnamese priests, some of whom were seminarians in their own country and, forced to flee following the fall of Saigon, have completed their formation in Australia. Others are now emerging from the vibrant Vietnamese community. From these ordinations of recent years we now have a number of parish priests around Sydney.

These men come to the seminary with a faith nurtured in their own ethnic environment. Some come with language difficulties. Many future parish priests will speak with an accent. These priests from ethnic backgrounds will bring to their ministry a contribution to the Church in Australia from their experience of Catholic life lived in their ethnic communities. What is important here is that the issue is not the building of an Australian Catholic Church, but of the Catholic Church in Australia reflecting that it is simply being what it is by name, Catholic. In this regard, being Catholic is more important than being Australian!

Formation

In 1992, in his longest Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I will Give you Shepherds"), Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of human formation in preparing seminarians for priestly ministry. The priest is a human being first and remains a human being, though transformed by grace. The priest is a "living image" of Jesus, and so the human perfection which shines forth in the Lord should be evident in the priest as well. Furthermore, the priest's ministry is directed to his fellow human beings, and he will be effective only to the degree that his own humanity serves as a bridge between God and human beings. The priest must be "humanly as credible and acceptable as possible", says the Holy Father and he goes on to add, "the whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked suitable human formation" (PDV 43).

Seminaries have responded in a variety of ways to this emphasis. One approach has been to engage the services of psychologists or counsellors as part of the seminary staff. An approach being developed at Good Shepherd Seminary is to focus on the formation of Christian character by drawing on classical Catholic teaching on the virtues.

As part of the seminary program students study and seek to grow in the key Christian virtues, especially those virtues that are particularly priestly. Special emphasis is given to the charism of celibacy whereby the seminarian willingly gives over his whole self to "the Lord's service" (cf I Cor 7). Seminary life provides many opportunities to develop a full and rounded Christian character.

The Pope speaks of future priests being "balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behaviour." (PDV 43).

Preparation for pastoral ministry has always been integral to priestly formation. In keeping with developing educational theories and practices which demand accountability, seminary programs have become more demanding, comprehensive and better supervised in recent years. While these are important developments, they should not detract from an emerging concern - the question of priestly identity.

The Congregation for the Clergy recently released a document (August 2002) that spoke of the role of the priest as pastor and leader in the parish community. First, in its discussion of the "Central Elements of the Ministry and Life of Priests", is priestly identity. It seeks to clarify the distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood, as one "not only in grade but also in essence" (§6). It speaks of the need to overcome what is now being identified as "the clericalising of the laity and the secularising of the clergy" (§7).

Thomas McGovern's book, Priestly Identity, presents a theology of priesthood centred on this question of identity. It is an important consideration in the current climate where, since the Second Vatican Council, so much emphasis has been placed on the role of the lay person in the Church.

In the light on this issue of priestly identity, formation for what has been called "priestcraft" needs better definition. "Priestcraft", in this context, refers to the practical dimensions of priestly ministry in its sacramental and pastoral expression.

While the theological institute that the students attend, The Catholic Institute of Sydney, offers teaching in the theology of priestly ministry and in the theology of the sacraments, the seminary formation teaches the students the practical expression of this theology, for instance, basic sacramental praxis. Priests with pastoral experience and an understanding of the Church's mind with regard to the liturgy and the sacraments teach the students, bringing a strong priestly character to the instruction.

New evangelisation

One area for consideration in the formation of priests for the future is that of the constant call of the Holy Father for the Church to engage in the "new evangelisation". Priests must not only be competent pastoral men, but must have the hearts of evangelists. Priests for the new millennium must set themselves and their parishes on a missionary footing

The Year 2002 has been a year of crisis for the priesthood. George Weigel, in The Courage To Be Catholic, sees the crisis as an opportunity for reform. The reform he identifies centres on what he calls, "the great adventure of orthodoxy". Weigel says, "Rediscovering the courage to be Catholic is the way in which all people of the Church - bishops, priests and laity - will transform scandal into reform, crisis into opportunity" (p.231).

Seminaries need to embrace this challenge. Sound formation of future priests is vital to the future health and well-being of the Church.

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