TODAY’S crop of seminarians at Queensland’s Holy Spirit Seminary is reflective of the nature of church-going Catholics – fewer in number, older in age and multicultural.
It’s a comparison that struck Monsignor John Grace when he arrived from Rockhampton diocese at the start of the year to become the seminary’s 13th rector.
He was also pondering such matters as he led the seminary community in celebrating 75 years of education and formation for priests in the Queensland province.
About 100 bishops and priests attended a Mass to celebrate the anniversary on November 3 in the old seminary chapel at the Australian Catholic University campus in Banyo.
Msgr Grace, who returned to the seminary this year after finishing his priestly formation 46 years ago, said taking on the new role had been a sharp learning curve.
“I knew the name of one student when I came, and quickly I realised that I knew nothing about their backgrounds,” he said.
“I knew nothing about their families.
“The only thing is, in looking at them, to me they reflected the Church that we’re part of.
“They’re fewer in number, they’re slightly older in age and they’re multicultural, and, in that sense, there’s a genuine beauty there.
“And I just find it’s an incredible generosity in any young men who are kind of stepping into what is a fairly counter-cultural way of life at present.
“At the same time it’s seen as a very valuable one in a world that’s kind of chafing at the bit for good values, I think.”
Who has been through the seminary?
Since the seminary opened in 1941 as Pius XII Seminary, more than 1000 men have been through the doors as students and just over 450 of them have been ordained – eight of them becoming bishops.
Msgr Grace said there were five pillars of seminary formation – spiritual, academic, pastoral, mission and faith, and human formation.
He said human formation demanded strong emphasis in light of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“We’ve had to provide information at the request of the Royal Commission in terms of what currently is being done (in seminary formation),” he said.
In the information provided, Msgr Grace said human formation was “crucial because it lies at the basis of everything else we do – if people are not humanly well formed, what you build on that just falls over”.
“I think, in the current climate, that’s probably our biggest challenge,” he said.
“With our academic formation, there’s always an ongoing challenge there.”
Seminary students study theology, philosophy, Scripture and Church history through Australian Catholic University.
Msgr Grace said the seminary was working on developing a stronger connection with ACU’s Theology and Philosophy faculty, “even to the point of tightening up a position that’ll probably be called something like the director of theological formation for ministry”.
The seminary was also developing a School of Evangelisation.
Msgr Grace said the seminary hoped to have a pilot project for that next year.
He said one of his priorities was having priests well formed in their faith.
“That means therefore that they need a sound spirituality, but faith has got a content to it as well,” he said. “They’ve got to have a well-rounded education in the faith.
“It’s wedding a spiritual life to an academic life, but then the two of them, having been wedded, they’ve got to be kind of planted into a pastoral life.”
Slowly but surely building God’s kingdom
Despite the lower number of seminarians, Msgr Grace said he believed the call to the priesthood was still there.
“Jesus called the disciples and he’s never withdrawn that call,” he said.
“It’s not being heard as well as it was when I was younger. And the call is being dimmed.
“It’s dimmed largely by the disappointments that have been found in the lives of some priests. That’s where it’s largely dimmed but I suppose it’s also affected by materialism, it’s affected by secularism.”
Msgr Grace said he wanted to thank Queenslanders for the strong support they gave the seminary.
“There are some very generous donors to this seminary, financially, but, again, it’s a little bit dangerous to see the size of the gift as the indication of the generosity, because to those of whom a lot is in their hands can give …, but those with a little in their hands, they could be giving the same proportion but it looks very much smaller,” he said.
“But there’s a great spirit of generosity there.”
A number of parishes had requested seminary prayer cards.
“I’m surprised at the number of people who are saying we’re praying for seminarians,” Msgr Grace said.
“I’ve seen this card up on the walls of some of the churches in the archdiocese (saying) these are the students we’re praying for.
“So there’s support coming financially, there’s support coming in prayer, and those two things, you link them together – that’s encouragement.
“And my hope is that we can produce the goods that the people of God expect of us – that would be my biggest hope.
“I just keep saying to the students that they’ve got to be a caring community – they must be caring of one another. Every day, the first thing on the news is like ‘Who got murdered last night?’ or ‘Where was the tragedy of yesterday?’
“Part of our counter-culture is to live other than that. It’s a huge challenge, I think, for us.”
By Peter Bugden