Priesthood in Australia

Catholicism arrived in Australia with the first fleet in 1788. Since the 1960s around one quarter of the population has identified as practicing Catholics.

A golden era

Previously, Catholic vocations to priesthood and religious life enjoyed a golden era. In Australia Catholicism grew largely out of the Irish community - and the idea that honour and pride came to a family which gave a son to the church. This ideology left Sydney with more priests than churches in the 1950s.

From across the country, hundreds of young men and women left their family home to become priests, brothers and sisters as locals took over from the Irish and, by 1950s, Australia-born clergy finally outnumbered Irish priests.

However, five decades on very few young men and women were pursuing the religious life. Religious vocations became few and far between and institution training was mostly abandoned as religious orders opted for smaller community-based formation, and the seminaries, the convents, the colleges and the monasteries lay underused, or sold.

Reignited interest in Catholicism

About 40 people are currently studying for the priesthood at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney, which supplies priests to various NSW dioceses.

Right now, the diocesan seminaries are outperforming other religious orders when it comes to recruitments. Parramatta currently has about 15 priests in training while Wagga Wagga's Vianney College has 27 young men being prepared for ministry in rural NSW.

However, when the rector, Father Peter Thompson, arrived in 2004 at Vianney College, they were down to just four seminarians.

So how did Fr Thompson ‘grow the market?’

"Initially Vianney was set up to provide priests for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, but it was evident when I arrived that was not working," he says.

"So we expanded. The dioceses of Lismore, Armidale and Wilcannia-Forbes came on board. And we are now accepting young men from overseas countries like Nigeria, the Philippines, India and Vietnam."

Father Brendan Lane, who heads the Corpus Christi College, is surprised by a revival in interest in the priesthood. “I thought with attitudes as they were, we’re finished.”

However, the priest of 43 years has witnessed a resurgence which meant in 2015 he didn’t have enough rooms and, subsequently, the new Corpus Christi seminary extensions were completed in November 2016.

Fr Lane said, “In 2015 there were 59 men at the college, which is more than double that enrolment figure of 28 students in 1999.”

He believes enrolments have been growing steadily because of World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008, which was the largest religious gathering in Australian history.

What is involved in becoming a priest?

The journey of becoming a priest is a lengthy, seven-year course at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne. About half to two-thirds of the seminarians see it through to ordination.

28-year-old first-year student, Jaycee Napoles - who was born in the Philippines - said the process of preparing for possible ordination is not what people might think

"It's not medieval, it's very modern. We learn the same things that people learn in universities...the same issues that everyone faces in everyday life and we try and master ourselves so that the message of Jesus is transparent through us and it becomes clear,” he said.

Fr Lane said when assessing potential students, church demographics in its various parishes are taken into consideration.

"So we have a lot of migrants in our parishes now, a lot of Filipinos, a lot of Vietnamese, a lot of Indians, a lot of Sri Lankans and some Mauritians, so we try to have the same mix in the seminary."

All prospective students are now subjected to what Father Lane said was extensive testing, including psychological tests.

A new generation of Catholic priests

A new wave of priests-in-formation promise to make the Church more open, engaging and modern

Young, hip and tech-savvy priests are connecting with a new generation of young people for the first time.

Think Fr Rob Galea. 36-year-old Fr Rob is an assistant priest in Bendigo, he was a contestant on Australia’s 2015 X Factor, leaving the show voluntarily due to parish commitments, he has a YouTube channel with 16,000 subscribers and has 12,000 followers on Twitter; proving he is as diverse as he is inspiring.

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