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It’s becoming hard to find an Aussie priest

Soon one in four priests in Australia will be foreign-born or on visas

By on Monday, 3 October 2011

Cardinal George Pell celebrates Mass to mark the 25th anniversary of Sydney's Chinese community alongside Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (CNS photo/Kerry Myers)

Cardinal George Pell celebrates Mass to mark the 25th anniversary of Sydney's Chinese community alongside Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (CNS photo/Kerry Myers)

My Irish Catholic grandmother may turn in her grave. “The most common name in the Australian handbook of Catholic priests is no longer Irish, but Vietnamese,” said Fr Adrian Farrelly of Clayfield, in Brisbane. “Yes, we have many overseas priests. My Nigerian deacon here has just been ordained.”

One former St Columban priest, Peter Wilkinson, now married with four children in Melbourne, estimates that 20 to 22 per cent of the 1,523 active priests in parish ministries in Australia are on visas or foreign-born – soon it will be one in four. “Sometime between now and 2020 it will reach 50 per cent,” he says. “The average age of priests actively ministering is 62 years – and rising.”

In the Diocese of Brisbane there are 142 active priests of whom 13 from Africa or India have arrived in the past five years. They joined dozens of other foreign priests: 14 from Poland and Vietnam and an unspecified number from Italy, the Philippines, Korea, Lebanon, Ukraine, Croatia, Mexico, China and Samoa. In some city parishes they reflect the composition of the congregations.

In the whole of Australia, at least 160 religious Sisters, priests, seminarians, and lay workers arrive annually from Vietnam, India, South America, Nigeria, Uganda and other African countries. Immigration controls mean they are restricted to three-year labour agreements and visas for ministry, training or study. But patching up the lack of priests with non-English-speaking clerics has received much criticism. Compromises, though, are needed. In the Outback some congregations only have a Mass once a month. Australia had 2,833,438 Catholics and 3,800 priests in 1970. Now the number of Catholics has nearly doubled to 5.6 million, but priests are down to 3,070, including 99 Eastern Rite, eight military chaplains and 16 Opus Dei members.

Some of Australia’s shortfall will be filled by 20 Anglican priests, mostly married, who are converting. The proposed ordinariate in Australia, as in England, is flourishing.

A few mitres may fall off when the bishops read this. The limitations in the Roman Rescript, the process and instrument by which priests are laicised, have been reduced. Old and weary though many of the estimated 100,000 or so priests who have left the priesthood since the 1970s may be, a new clause allows them to be active in churches as laymen.

A Vatican letter says that instead of banishing ex-priests to the sidelines, bishops may invite them to participate in parish duties. Sent by Cardinal Ivan Dias, recently retired prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, to the World Grouping of Catholic Missionary Institutes, it invites “the diocesan bishop to encourage the dispensed cleric to actively participate in the life of the local Church, making all his God-given gifts and talents available for the benefit of the Church”.

Wilkinson, who explains that he has resigned from the ministry, not the priesthood, was among the Australians quietly campaigning for this change. He says that previously the Rescript was “specific and prohibitive: no preaching a homily, no distributing of Holy Communion, no directive role in pastoral work, no functions in seminaries or equivalent institutes, no teaching in tertiary teaching institutions dependent on ecclesiastical authority, no directive or teaching role in formal theological education, and once laicised must keep away from places where formerly known as a priest”.

Will the scarcity of local priests for sacramental and pastoral duties now lead to further concessions?

  • Anonymous


  • Nat_ons

    If the worldly flesh continues to have its way, sadly, yes, exceptions, permissions and accommodations will ever abound. If men of good faith accept the self-sacrifice of Christ’s form of priesthood, and the Spirit who inspires it, then Deo Volente no – they will be priests as they have pledge themselves so to be: according to their order, forever. Note, I do not say that married men ought never become priests under any circumstances, of course they may as they do, for that is not an exception to common discipline but part of the same rule in discipleship .. if marriage prior to ordination is part of the ordinary’s approved custom, and not rebellion.

    Undoing one’s commitment to Christ in celibacy is not an option for the approved ordinary discipline of those called to, accepted for, and ordained in priestly ministry in the Latin Rite. No more so and no less so than divorce and remarriage, cultural polygamy or even widowed digamy were the authorised discipline for clergy in the Eastern Rites – having been married before ordination not after it (however much modern priests in those Rites now believe that this is old fashioned and hostile to contemporary life). Calls to cast aside custom of discipleship in favour of today’s taste in freedom, even if wholesome and blessed freedom, is self-defeating (replacing one discipline with another); similarly abortion cannot be made right in Christ because it presents too many difficulties to oppose it, contraception cannot suddenly be deemed permissible because the world and his wife accepts it and expects everyone else to agree, same-sex unions cannot of passing time turn into the Sacrament of marriage of the ageless mystery of a divine pledge (denying the absolute to affirm the relative); such a spirit of laxity is not pastoral or affirmative or liberating for Christian truth, it is worldly (and therefore poison to the Spirit in Christ).

    If Australia does not have enough of the Spirit to sacrifice its worldliness, then let its priesthood perish just as it ought – for it is not of Christ or his Spirit but the flesh. If Europe’s priests refuse to uphold their self-sacrificing vocation in union with Christ’s, then let them die out or go where their embittered spirit of fleshly rebellion can find a home, one where itches can be more easily appeased. If the whole world denies the discipleship of the Cross and its demands, it does no more than acknowledge the rule of its principle in spirit; for the church in its orthodoxy and catholicism to make laxity of spirit its rule of discipline (as too often it has) it is sin - and that is an absolute of Christian truth which applies to each Rite and every Rite, not any relative worth that the flesh places on sacrifice or self-fulfilment.

  • Adam

    The most recent episcopal appointment in Australia was the new auxiliary of Melbourne – a former Vietnamese refugee, not a bishop.  And not a diocesan priest either and melb now has two of four religious auxiliaries.  The fact is the Church in Australia is in a real mess re new priests.  Some dioceses are bringing in African and Asian priests, BUT in Hobart archdiocese  which has about 34 active priests, some south asians came in and then left – no real community . The problem is these imported-priests come from cultures where faith is high and central to life.  Australia is a very secular society where sport and food and mateship (as shallow as it is) dominate.  The big suburban house, the trendy lifestyle dominates.  The Irish influence has gone and disappeared and the real problem is a lack of very strong and charisma-led episcopacy. There is only one bishop who stands out, other than cardinal Pell, and that man is Archbishop Coleridge of canberra. Now 63 he is only 12 years from retirement but will probably be moved to Rome and made a cardinal in next 5 years. If Pell went, Coleridge would go to Sydney. There is a massive underlying problem there – no real leaders. A Church that has been poorly led and some bad appointments. Melbourne especially has had two poor appointments in last 35 years – Little and Hart, who were /are not leaders.  From master of ceremonies to Archbishop – that’s DJ Hart.  No theological mind of any significance. Just safe and sure.  But leader -no.  Numbers are dropping drastically and Rome delays and delays on new appointments. There are at least 5-6 major Sees up for new bishops within coming months.  Will the Vatican know where to find them?  Very sad state.

  • Ronk

    A very unbalanced article.
    Australia is a country of immigrants!

    One quarter of Australian residents were born overseas. Half of all Australian residents have at least one parent who was born overseas.
    The figures for Australian Catholics are even higher, and the figures for Australian practising Catholics are higher still.
    So there is nothing wrong with a quarter of even half of Australian priests having been born overseas.

    In fact it has been the usual practice in Australian history for the majority of its priests to have been born overseas. The last 60 years have been an exception to this. The only difference is that from the beginning up until the 1950s, the majority of these priests were born in Ireland. Now we are told that it is a “problem” that we have a lot of overseas-born priests. The two reasons for the objection being
    - that most of them were born in Asia, Africa or Poland. This is simply racism.  And a resentment of the fact that they remind us that we are a Universal Church, to the chagrin of those trying to create, or claiming that teher exists,  an “Australian Church”.
    - that most of them, unlike many Australian-born priests, actually preach the whole of the Gospel and uphold all of the Chruch’s doctrines, not just those which are politically correct, and do not try to mould the Church into the image of secular society.

  • Carol

    The seminaries in  south eastern Australia are full in 2013, as I believe they were in 2011, too. Yesterday I attended the ordination of three YOUNG priests ( a young colleague was ordained a few months ago) and there will be more diocesan ordinations later this year, I expect.
    As Ronk states here, we are a multi-cultural nation. 45% of citizens have either been born overseas or have a parent who was.  Asians and Indians abound in capital cities, and African migrants are steadily increasing in number.