A Good News Story about the Increase in Vocations

Having just celebrated “Vocations Week” here in Australia, it is good to see the Herald Sun running a good news story with the heading “Catholic seminaries full as religion resurges”.

I am firmly convinced that the Catholic Church in Australia (and indeed the world in general) is “heading in the right direction”. Even if you are not prepared to grant that, you have to admit that the Good Ship Ecclesia is well into the 180 degree turn required to get her travelling on the right course.

Like any massive ocean going vessel, the Church is no ballerina. A permanent change in direction takes time. Four priests per year may not sound like very many. The point is that, as the story says, that is the largest single group of candidates that Sydney has had since 1983. Nor may sixty seminarians sound like many. But that is, again as the story points out, three times as many as in 2000.

There are a lot of factors that have become institutionalised over the last 50 or 60 years (which could be described as “momentum”) still trying to keep the Old Girl on the old course (full steam ahead towards the iceberg, as it were), but the engines of the Spirit are behind this new orientation, and I hope to see the complete turn about in my own lifetime.

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23 responses to “A Good News Story about the Increase in Vocations

  1. An old priest commented recently that the problem isn’t so much getting young people interested as it is removing the barriers that have been in place from family, community and the Church itself, preventing good young candidates from presenting themselves.

    Personally I think the statistics show that largge families produce vocations, so we need more more large families! 🙂

  2. Tony

    What’s the basis of your optimism David? I’m not asking to be negative, I’m just wondering are there any reliable statistics around to back up your conviction?

    I suspect that even taking into account a slight (or greater?) upward trend in vocations, we still have to prepare for a very different church (esp in terms of the priest/people ratio) in the next 10 to 20 years.

    • If you want the statistical basis, I need only point to the fact that the upward turn in vocations in Australia is as consistent and across-the-board in the last 10 years as it was consistent and across-the-board in the other direction in the twenty years previous to that. It is slight, but it is in the “right direction”.

      But I base my optimism more on the fact that there is much more discussion of, desire for and action in regards to evangelisation, faithfulness to the gospel, catechisation etc. today than there was previously, both among the bishops and the laity. The Church isn’t simply sitting back and letting the predicted decline “happen”, it is doing something about it.

      Of course, the fact that the social context in which the Church exists has become ever more secular (and secularist?) in the last few decades is part of the reason why even an all out effort in this regard is producing comparitively moderate results. But this is what I meant with that image of “engines” and “momentum” working in different directions.

      • Tony

        If you want the statistical basis, I need only point to the fact …

        But what ‘fact’ are you ‘pointing’ to, David? Are there trend figures that anyone can look at?

        • Tom

          Do you mean you want a statistical report?

          I’m not sure where one would find such numbers: I suspect the ABS doesn’t keep track records of numbers of seminarians, however I found an article talking to various priests/rectors/spiritual directors who are intimiately familiar with the workings of a seminary.

          http://www.sydney.catholic.org.au/news/latest_news/2009/200986_332.shtml

          That article talked largely about the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney, but it doesn’t mention the Redemtoris Mater Seminary (founded in 2003) also in the sydney arch-diocese, which has around 15 seminarians in it, bringing the total to nearly 60 seminarians, just in the Sydney archdiocese alone. This does not include various other chapter houses and formation houses run by the Capuchins, Jesuits and Dominicans; these are just the diocesan seminarians. I know that the sydney capuchin novitiate has at least 6 novices (my former parish priest is now the formator for the novitiate; he bought 6 novices with him to mass a few weeks back to introduce us) – and the article mentions that last year 4 priests were ordained, as opposed to what had been 1-2, (or sometimes none) ordained each year for several decades.

          I think these numbers give very good reason for hope Tony.

          • Peregrinus

            The ABS doesn’t have these statistics, but the church does. Seminaries, etc, have to make their reports and returns just like other church bodies. So the data exists, and could in theory be mined to compare between dioceses, or over time, or whatever other way you want to slice it.

            But the church doesn;t generally publish the data, except in very “big picture” terms, and then only in relatively inaccessible places. (How many of us subscribe to the Annuario Pontificio?) And, although the figures would be interesting, on the whole I think it’s wise not to draw too much attention to them, or place too much importance on them. Firstly, it’s easy to be selective with figures and choose the ones you want to bolster what you want to think. Secondly, there’s too much tendency to attach weight to what can be easily measured, and to overlook what cannot.

            Incidentally, I note your point about the various religious houses of formation. But wouldn’t all novices in religious orders at some point be enrolled as seminary students? If we count the seminary students and then say “and there’s all the novices in religious orders as well”, are we not double-counting? Or have I got that wrong?

            • Tom

              I don’t think they are enrolled as seminarian students because they aren’t formed or educated by the diocese. Diocesan seminary’s are run by the diocese and paid for by the diocese, but various chapter houses, formation houses, novice houses etc. are run by their respective orders, not under the auspices of the Bishop, but under the auspices of the authority in each order. So they aren’t going to be double-counted for the purposes of statistics. There are actually 42 seminarians at The Good Shepherd seminary.

              • Peregrinus

                Doesn’t this involve needless and wasteful duplication? If I understand you correctly, the religious houses of formation are operating in parallel with the seminaries and presumably duplicating for their 1, 2 or 3 novices courses and programmes whcih those seminaries provide. Is there no element of shared formation as between regular and secular students (or, indeed, as between regular students of different contgregations)?

                • Tom

                  It’s not really duplicating. You have to remember that the way study is undertaken today is not like the seminaries of old, which were more like schools (and more often than not, attached to schools/universities).

                  In fact, the first schools (in the modern sense of the term) were Jesuit schools with mass-education provided by the Jesuits with text books first written by Suarez (the Jesuit philosopher/priest). This was a key part of the Church’s counter-reformation.

                  Today seminarians and novices et. al, undertake their philosophy and theological studies at universities, the same as every other student wanting to study these courses. There are about 9 or 10 seminarians studying at my university, (some from the diocesan seminaries, some from the Franciscan novitiate) several did the same courses as I did last year.

                  The difference between the various houses of formation and seminarians is their vocational and spiritual formation. Diocesan seminaries usually have a Rector, a Vice-Rector and a Spiritual Director, along with dedicated formaters and catechists. (These roles can overlap).

                  The various other (that is order related novitiates etc.) have their own spiritual directors, and tend to follow the spiritual formation of their name sake. The Jesuits put emphasis on Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, the Capuchins/Franciscans put emphasis on the meditations of St. Francis, etc. etc.

                  To put it analogously, diocesan seminaries are like ‘public schools’ run by the ‘diocese’ and the various orders have their own ‘private schools’. I say this without any reference to the debate about the quality of public vs. private schools; just to illustrate, they all receive a spiritual formation; each place just does it a little differently according to the traditions of each order. Dominican spiritual formation is different to Jesuit, is different to Cistertian, is different to Franciscan etc.

                  In terms of the actual ‘education’ of philosophy and theology, yes, this is taught by lecturers at universities (generally Catholic universities, in Sydney this means Australian Catholic Uni, Catholic Institute of Sydney, Campion College and Notre Dame). But in keeping with the richness of the various traditions and the spirituality in each order, these are formed separately by each order.

                  Each order has different educational standards as well; the Jesuits for example, are famous for requiring a very high level of education; I have heard of Jesuit priests who have spent over 20 years before becoming priests. I believe the church does set a minimum requirement though, which is something like a BA in philosophy & theology.

            • Tony

              If you want the statistical basis, I need only point to the fact that the upward turn in vocations in Australia is as consistent and across-the-board in the last 10 years as it was consistent and across-the-board in the other direction in the twenty years previous to that …

              These are strong statements esp in the context of Louise’ despair and previous assertions that only ‘faithful’ bishops preside over increases.

              Notwithstanding Pere’s words of caution, I’d still love to know where the figures are at.

              🙂

  3. Shan

    I suspect that even taking into account a slight (or greater?) upward trend in vocations, we still have to prepare for a very different church (esp in terms of the priest/people ratio) in the next 10 to 20 years.

    Absolutely! And thank God for that! One of the reasons why things have become rather stagnant is because so many of us have been taking things for granted (“*Other people* can promote vocations/visit the sick & imprisoned/teach the faith, so *I* don’t need to worry about that…”)

    This laissez-faire attitude has been tacitly encouraged by bishops and priests who are quite happy to wait for people to visit them rather than vice-versa, or prefer to open buildings than to open hearts and minds through public teaching and public prayer.

    I know from experience that many seminarians do not share this outlook and have an evangelical view of the role of the priest. Thank God for that.

    • I suspect that the priest/people ratio will remain pretty static in our Archdiocese at lesat, because as our priests die off, our parishes will shrink also.

      In Tas, I don’t think we need to worry as much about priestless parishes, as parishionerless parishes.

      Glad to here Sydney has 60 seminarians (as opposed to Tasmania’s one, who is African).

      If it weren’t a sin, I’d despair of this Archdiocese.

  4. PM

    Not only vocations, but the continued existence of congregations for our new priests to serve, will depend greatly on whether we can stop Catholic schools from remaining the graveyards of faith they have become in the last 40 years. Now there’s a 180 degree turn! Is there any research on the effect of the efforts of (regrettably only some) of our bishops in the last decade?

    • The schools are hopeless. In most dioceses, they ought to be cut loose from the Barque of Peter altogether.

      • Shan

        In fairness Louise, I don’t think it is as simple as that. It is widely accepted that the majority of students in Catholic education are nominally Catholic but lack a developed faith. The chief educator in faith is, of course, the family. The Church teaches (in documents on Catholic education and in its social justice teaching about subsidiarity) that the school builds upon the teaching that happens in the family, but it is the proper place of the school to complement the family’s work – not to supplement it. Schools are communities drawn together from several families for the express purpose of achieving education. If those feeder communities, from where are drawn the teachers, support staff and pupils who form the school, lack a proper understanding from which to commence their work, then it would be foolish to blame them for their defect.

        Or to put it another way, in the words of Holy Scripture (Romans 10:14-17):

        But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

        We have a communal duty to share the faith – and that is chiefly expressed in our time in history through the establishment and maintenance of formal educational institutions. You may argue, as I am inclined to, that it is shortsighted to view schools as the primary avenue through which the faith is communicated. I would go further and suggest that one of the reasons for our difficulties in promoting a culture of vocations is that we have institutionalised evangelisation in the form of schools.

        All Church activities – whether they are sanctioned by diocesan coffers and logos or not, whether they are led by clerics or laity, whether they are explicitly or implicitly evangelical – all Church activities need to be radically oriented towards sharing the Gospel. After all, the Gospel is our raison d’être for all our other work. And vocations are the fruit that comes from work animated by love of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

        In other words: blaming the schools doesn’t aid anyone in responding to the call of God.

        • Tony

          In other words: blaming the schools doesn’t aid anyone in responding to the call of God.

          And they’re such an easy target, aren’t they?

          People like Sharon who have a particular idea of what ‘orthodox faith’ is, are free to make sweeping statements that make schools the problem.

          The fact is for students, probably a majority of students these days, schools provide the only faith education and faith experience in their lives.

          And I’ve seen and heard that students actually love to be involved in liturgy and sacraments that are relevant to them in the school setting and that speak their language. They are often celebrations that the so-called orthodox frown on. And, yes, there is an emphasis on love and justice.

          For all the difficulties associated with Catholic Education — and I’m not saying there are none — it is the jewel in the crown of our church.

          Whenever I’ve been to gatherings that seek to discuss and enthuse Catholics about the future of the church, there is always a healthy representation of educators. The majority, in my experience, are passionate about doing their bit for the church.

          • Shan

            In fairness to Sharon, Tony, she is not alone in being able to make sweeping statements about schools. And to be rather pointed: grouping people into such categories doesn’t engage with the questions at hand.

            I agree with you that the majority of students may only come into contact with the faith via the school. It seems to me, however, that this is a phenomenon that few seem interested in changing – whether it be by increase, decrease or degree. Instead, Catholic schools seem to serve as a object to be scorned or applauded depending upon the speaker’s agenda.

            And all that rhetoric changes nothing. People will always disagree about how to improve schools (materially, pedagogically, spiritually etc) but unless you are doing something to aid in this improvement, what use are your words? (I am speaking broadly here Tony, and I don’t intend on levelling an accusation towards yourself or Sharon.)

            Bl Mary MacKillop’s maxim seems to ring in my ears everytime I step into one of my classes: never see a need without acting to meet it, or a problem without acting to address it.

            Which brings me back to vocations: I have no sympathy for those bemoaning the lack of vocations (or the character of those who are testing their vocations) if they have done nothing to promote and encourage vocations. Likewise, I have no sympathy for the farmer who decries his weak harvest only after having never watered the crop.

            • Tony

              In fairness to Sharon, Tony, she is not alone in being able to make sweeping statements about schools. And to be rather pointed: grouping people into such categories doesn’t engage with the questions at hand.

              OK. I consider myself suitably admonished! 🙂

              However, although not a teacher myself, I know many in the Catholic system and get tired of the way they are so often dumped on because … well, we’ve heard it all before.

              They are, in so many ways, the ones who have to mediate between youthful idealism and energy and the crass materialism and superficiality of our culture, esp our ‘yoof’ culture.

              Because I’m not in there doing it myself and because I see so many working their butts off to ‘make a difference’ (to use a hackneyed phrase) — very much in the Bl Mary MacKillop tradition — I’m particularly reluctant to be one of the ‘dumpers’.

  5. Sharon

    The chief educator in faith is, of course, the family.

    Of course but if mum and dad went to a Catholic school which didn’t teach the orthodox faith and if father only preaches social justice and “God lurves you the way you are”, what have they to pass on to their children?

    • Shan

      This argument only has a short shelf-life, Sharon. After all, when we become adults we put away childish things – and we are responsible for ourselves. So if I, as an adult, want to pass on the faith to my children, why would I assume that that task falls to the school alone?

      Secondly, we are our brother’s keeper – so why would we not, seeing our friends who may lack an unarticulated faith, seek to help them develop it? (Do not parents realise the successes and gaps in their own education when their children are at school? Wouldn’t this also act as a catalyst for an adult to seek out to redress gaps in their own knowledge?)

      • PM

        I might add – belatedly – that I wasn’t just dumping on teachers. The biggest problem is that the majority of parents don’t really care about faith development: it came home to me one Easter when I had a rebellion from my year 9 son when not one – yes, not one – of his friends or their families was going anywhere near a church. The NSW bishops have crept, thirty years too late, towards acknowledging the problem, but I have to wonder if much will change.

        AndI must say that the backhanded attempt to blame the parents is more than a little galling. I can hardly think of a single family of practising Catholic parents who have tried to pass on their faith whose children have not emerged from Catholic secondary schools in a morass of ignorance, confusion and either indifference or contempt. We can’t go on any longer brushing off these issues with airy assurances such as ‘don’t worry, they’ll come back’. We have to ask why the atmosphere has become so toxic and what can be done about it. Should schools, for example, be smaller but more serious about faith?

        Having suffered from the influx of pop psychology in the late 60s (but had some excellent teachers as well), I’m not convinced that dumbing down in the name of ‘relevance’ will get us anywhere. We despised HiTime and Move Out even then, and had much more respecct for those who tried to teach some serious Scripture and theology. World Youth Day can teach us something here – a full-blooded and intelligent faith and liturgy will appeal much more than Carl Rogers in drag.

        Another frustration is that the tyranny of so-called ‘experts’ disempowers parents – we are solemnly assured that we should never intervene or try to influence them – just ‘don’t worry, they’ll come back’. Many clergy are intimidated by this orthodoxy. If these ‘experts’ had had their way, WYD would never have happened – just ask messrs Collins and Coyne and ex-Father Kennedy, not to mention the school principal who assured us that one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass on Sunday (http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s2210667.htm). Any ideas about reconnecting with young adults would be welcome. Mine didn’t pay a second’s attention to WYD.

        The shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life is a subset of a bigger problem – a collapse in belief and practice among an entire generation that is without precedent in the history of Christianity. At the rate we are going, there won’t be much left for future priests to minister to. I can only pray for the fruits of WYD.

      • So if I, as an adult, want to pass on the faith to my children, why would I assume that that task falls to the school alone?

        It’s a lot harder to pass on the faith to our children when the Catholic schools are actively undermining that effort with rampant heresy.

        That’s why I’m glad to have my kids at home, although we home school because of the positive benefits and it’s our calling – it’s not for everyone.

    • The chief educator in faith is, of course, the family.

      Let’s be quite clear here. Of course the chief educator is the family – so why did the families suddenly fail their kids? In short, because their own training in the Faith did not prepare them for the onslaught of the New Heresy – Secularism.

      So ultimately, Sharon, I agree with you and not with those who defend the schools. For the most part, the schools have allowed any amount of heresy to be taught as fact and faith in the schools. Parents have permitted their children to be brought up by the TV and this New Heresy is alive and well.

      Decent adult catechesis, prayer, commitment to holiness, orthodoxy (ie the teachings as summarised in the catechism) and orthopraxy are all required to turn things around.

      Pray, fast, give alms.

      Become saints.