By Anthony Barich
Rectors of seminaries around Australia have been impressed with increasing student numbers across the country as the new study year began on February 9.
St Charles Seminary in Guildford now has 22 resident students, including eight new enrolments for 2009 and a further two completing their studies in Rome.
Sydney’s Seminary of the Good Shepherd has 49 – more than double the 2001 figure – including 13 new enrolments this year.
Melbourne’s Corpus Christi College also has 49, including nine first-years. Parramatta’s Holy Spirit Seminary started last year with 11 students, with a further five still discerning with the local vocations director.
Vianney College in Wagga Wagga, NSW has a record 22 students currently in residence, including five new enrolments this year.
The two missionary seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way in Australia – Redemptoris Mater in Morley (19) and Sydney (20) are also strong, with students from Australia, the US, Africa, Europe and Asia.
Rectors of Australian seminaries say this has been the result of previous World Youth Days; Australian bishops actively recruiting both locally and overseas; and, with a church participation rate of five per cent among school leavers, there is a renewed urgency for the New Evangelisation that Pope John Paul II often referred to.
Fr Michael Moore, Rector of Perth’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary, said “the lack of people” in churches in recent years “has led us to rediscover the real mission is to evangelise, that is reaping greater rewards as people are coming back to the seminaries”.
Rectors say that WYD 2008 in Sydney may have helped a handful of this year’s intake but many of them had already submitted their applications before July last year.
Fr Anthony Ireland, Rector of Corpus Christi College, the regional seminary for Victoria and Tasmania, says “there is, amongst some of the guys, a fresh generosity emerging in the Church… a spirit of self-giving”.
“You’d have to put that down to some of the World Youth Days over the past decade or so – I have seminarians who found their vocations at WYDs in Rome (2000), Toronto (2002) and Cologne (2005),” Fr Ireland said.
“Whilst we can’t tell the impact of Sydney yet (in terms of vocations), I hope and pray it will have a benefit eventually in Australian seminaries by 2010.”
World Youth Days, he says, help cement the thinking of many young men and women to join seminaries and convents as it helps them realise that “it’s good to be Catholic and that you’re not alone”.
Fr Paul Roberts, vocations director of the Parramatta Diocese, believes that since he was ordained in the 1980s, there has been a shift to the “sacramental model” of priesthood.
“At WYD08 I noticed a lot of (priests) in traditional dress”, which represents a shift towards a strong sense of identification,’ he said.
Seminarians in general today, he says, are very clear about Church teaching and willing to be identified in their beliefs. “The Church by nature is conservative, as it’s about conserving and preserving what matters,” he said.
Fr Anthony Percy, Rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, says that as seminary numbers increase, notions of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are starting to become outdated among youth, who, in seeking the Truth, have a “great desire to go and spread the Good News”, with the sacraments as their foundation.
“The new seminarian wants to get out and make a difference” by being part of a “Christo-centric” priesthood, he said, and in doing so are fulfilling Vatican II’s teaching that priest’s role is to preach the faith and celebrate the mysteries of the faith.
“There’s an evangelical thrust developing in the Church – a sense that as priests, we’re not just ‘men of maintenance’ (of parishes),” Fr Percy said. “We’ve got to get out there and bring Christ to those who haven’t heard of Him and to those who’ve left the Church.
“We get guys who have quite a good sense of that now.”
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Don Hughes, Rector of St Charles Seminary since January 2006, says “the wheel turned” for diocesan seminaries about three years ago.
Gone, also, are the days of minor seminaries in the first world – something Fr Hughes agrees with, though they still exist in third-world regions like India and the Philippines.
“Really, a boarding school is only the second-best place to receive formation,” he said.
“The family is still the primary source. To know one’s siblings is important. Often the guys who grew up in seminaries hardly know their brothers and sisters, and that’s a bit sad.”
When Fr Kevin Long takes over from Fr Hughes as St Charles’ Rector on March 8, the Oblate will move to his Order’s Australian headquarters in Melbourne to be Novitiate Master, to nurture the four young men they have in formation.
Dominican Father Jordan Perry, spiritual director of Vianney College, which also produces priests for Lismore, Wollongong and Armidale, says young men respond when seminaries are “doing what the Church says in teaching what the Church teaches the way it should be taught”.