Indeed, the most recent episcopal appointment in Australia, for Armidale, was a parish priest here, and other names from the diocese have been suggested as possible future appointments.
So how has the diocese achieved this?
The answer seems to be that this is one of Australia's few genuinely 'conservative' dioceses (well for Australia anyway; and yes, I'll get to other dioceses who might aspire to that title eventually!).
Demography and geography
Wagga Wagga is one of Australia's smaller dioceses, both in terms of geography (fifth smallest), albeit not that small by world standards at 24,000sq kms, and population (no 21 of the geographical dioceses), with 64,800 catholics in 2010.
Wagga Wagga itself is NSW's largest inland town, and is a relatively prosperous University and military town, and its location halfway between Sydney and Melbourne aid its position as a regional hub. The town's population is relatively homogeneous: 3.4% are indigenous (above average), but only 6.4% born outside Australia, compared to a nation-wide average of 21.9%.
The diocese also includes NSW's second largest inland town, however, the industrial town of Albury (in reality the town straddles the NSW-Victorian border/Murray River, forming the conglomerate of Albury-Wodonga), where most of the modest population growth over the last decade has been of migrants (and incomes are below the NSW average).
Around 30% of the population of the diocese are catholic.
An enviable record: the contribution of Bishop Brennan
When the current bishop, Bishop Gerard Hanna, took over in 2002 from Bishop William Brennan (who retired for health reasons) the diocese was in very good shape, defying the trend in dioceses across Australia.
Bishop Brennan had long insisted that catholic education actually be catholic; had invited in the excellent Ganmain Dominican sisters sisters; and had just reopened the diocesan seminary. Under his tenure the number of priests actually increased: in 1980 there were 51; he was appointed in 1984; at the time of his retirement in 2002 the number had increased to 57 (46 diocesan).
When Bishop Brennan retired, the Catholic Weekly reported that:
The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell, said last year that Wagga Wagga diocese had experienced a "Catholic revival" under Bishop Brennan. "I think it is time to publicly salute that achievement," he said. "The Wagga diocese is probably the best diocese in Australia. Its seminarians and priests are a testament to Bishop Brennan's courage and faith."
Bishop Hanna: keeping up the good fight
He seems to active supports the many and diverse religious activities in the diocese, and this effort continues to pay off.
The number of diocesan priests in Wagga Wagga has increased from 46 when Bishop Gerard Hanna took office in 2002, to 59 in 2010, resulting in a total of 72 priests for the diocese and an impressive priest to catholics ratio of 1: 900. The diocese has consistently had a good number of seminarians (11 at last count).
Not surprisingly, Wagga Wagga diocese has above average mass attendance rates (1.2% of Australia's catholics, but 1.4% of mass attenders).
It has no Sunday assemblies without a priest!
But it does have regular Sunday Latin Masses in both Wagga Wagga and Albury (and I'm led to believe, elsewhere), said by diocesan priests.
Another notable feature of the diocese is the Divine Mercy Shrine at Tarcutta (yes, I realise there are some well known non-diocesan ringers in this video!):
Insistence on actual Catholicism!
A look through the curriculum for the seminary (set out in detail online with admirable transparency) and a read through the diocesan newspaper will give you a pretty good flavour of just what the strategy in this diocese has been: in short, an insistence on orthodoxy and orthopraxis!
|Source: Diocesan website shot of students and staff, 2011|
The seminary has attracted seminarians from neighbouring conservatives dioceses such as Lismore and Armidale as well. It is affiliated with the Urbaniana University in Rome for its STL program, and also has close links and degree credit arrangements with the excellent Charles Sturt University. This is perhaps the only seminary in Australia (but do tell me if I'm wrong on this) that actually genuinely complies with the formal requirements for the learning of Latin (a semester doesn't cut it!), with students normally doing at least two years of the subject.
Diocesan life: The December edition of the diocesan newspaper Together is a breath of fresh air compared to practically every other diocesan paper in the country (well of those available online in some form at any rate!), taking the mission to evangelize and educate in the faith seriously.
It has articles on the wonderful Tyburn nuns and their new video, abortion (the appalling Melbourne case of the 'wrong' child being aborted), the myth of overpopulation, and on opposition to same-sex marriage. The articles on things happening in the Church in Australia, such as the Year of Grace and of course the appointment of their own Fr Kennedy as a bishop, local activities in support of the missions, and much more.
But perhaps the most uplifting article for me was on the 'Youth Expo' attended by over one hundred young people from the diocese and across Australia, held in Albury. The picture for the story is of a Blessed Sacrament Procession. And the expo included daily Mass and perpetual Adoration. The talks included topics such as ‘The Sacrament of Confession’, ‘discerning your vocation’, ‘Catholic in the public Square’, and ‘Our Lady Star of evangelisation’.
Saint Mary McKillop College: The diocese also includes within its borders, a notable experiment in creating a more genuinely catholic school, in the form of the Saint Mary McKillop Colleges. The parental and student contracts, which deal with the faith environment, are well worth a read!
|Source: School website|
An absolutely critical factor for the diocese, drawn to my attention by a commenter, is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, established some twenty five years ago with the intention of praying for priestly vocations.
Calvary Hospital Chapel, supported by a vibrant group of Adorers, has Exposition every weekday from 8.30 am until 9.00 pm, on weekdays and then an all night vigil every Friday night.
We need more of this kind of thing!
I don't want to suggest that this is in any sense a 'traditionalist' diocese, it clearly isn't.
It engages in many of the same issues as others across the country, and has developed links, for example, with places like the Broken Bay Institute, hardly a bastion of conservatism!
It is hard to be sure from the outside, but it seems to me that this diocese has essentially been conservative in the JPII mode (adapted to Australia), rather than adopting a Benedict XVI style semi-traditionalism.
Either way, it has managed to maintain a very strong catholic ethos, and to cultivate a strong vocation culture.
We need more of dioceses like Wagga Wagga....