Friday, 13 January 2012

Wagga Wagga: Australia's spiritual powerhouse?**

I wanted to end the week on a positive note, so, in this continuing series on the state of the Church in Australia, state by state, and diocese by diocese, a look at what is probably still Australia's best diocese, Wagga Wagga.

Wagga Wagga is of particular note because over the last decade it has been a positive powerhouse when it comes to ordaining priests, pulling way, way above its notional weight!

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

It takes genuine commitment and effort to maintain, let alone build on an enviable situation, though (a case in point being Melbourne, which does not seem to have maintained the momentum it had gained under Cardinal Pell), and Bishop Hanna, now aged 70, has managed this.

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: Actually having a diocesan seminary - a rare thing these days, absent even from large dioceses such as Adelaide - has clearly been an important key to Wagga Wagga's continuing success.  As the Perth experience also shows, a seminary (at least under the right rector) can create its own momentum, and certainly makes the diocese's commitment to the ministerial priesthood crystal clear. 

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....


Mormorador said...

Kate, without comment about the rest of what you have written - you are not quite right about the Latin requirement - in the 2007 Australian Bishop's programme of studies, the requirement is that all seminarians proficient in English do at least Latin I and Latin II, ie two semester units in Ecclesiastical Latin. So a place that works through a standard Ecclesiastical Latin text in a year (typically nowadays CUA's Collins Primer) would be fulfilling the Australian programme/Ratio. This is done at least in the cases of diocesan Sydney and Melbourne; not sure about elsewhere. My impression is that the one semester-of-token-Latin is a thing of past decades. Perhaps this one year of Latin isnt sufficient in your opinion, but thats whats in the Programme/Ratio.

Melbourne Trad said...

Unless one has exceptional linguistic abilities (rare among Australians), one year of formal study of Latin is not going to give a good grasp of the language. Two years is the absolute minimum if not three years.

By good grasp of Latin, I mean the ability to read documents written in Latin with only occasional recourse to a dictionary and/or a grammar.

Of course, it is easier to learn (and remember) Latin if one is at the same time regularly using it in liturgical celebrations at the seminary (eg Mass and Divine Office) but that is still a big no no! Heck, in the chapel at the Melbourne Seminary, ringing the bells at the consecration is still forbidden!!!

A Canberra Observer said...

I have to say I am scandalised by Melbourne Trad's revelation re Melbourne. (for the avoidance of doubt, the revelation not Melbourne Trad).

There are so many liturgical fascists amongst the 'liberals' and 'conservatives'. In just about any other field of human endeavour someone (perhaps many) would say to them: "you have NFI and you should get a life". This is something that many clerics (from wet behind the ears ordinands to bishops) lack in their formation and life it seems to me, and the corresponding ability to be able to deal with a bit of direct communication.

Father K said...

Some of the facts here are not quite accurate, but the appraisal is! However, I really deplore the continued over-used, jejune terminology throughout this article i.e. conservative, traditional, especially putting too much contrast between the JPII Pontificate and the current [as if it were simply a change of political party power, or 'policy']- the reality as we live it here in Wagga Wagga is quite different. We are simply Catholic, we love Our Lord and our Faith and we do whatever it takes to preach, teach, influence, propose, celebrate and spread that Faith. Stop labelling us for the love of God. Enough with inappropriate political adjectives. [We took seriously the concept of 'the hermeneutic of reform in continuity' long before Pope Benedict actually articulated it as such because of this. And I am so sorry no mention was made of the the vibrant, self-sacrificing Eucharistic Adorers at Calvary Hospital Chapel. Exposition every weekday from 8.30 am until 9.00 pm. weekdays and then an all night vigil every Friday night. Established 25+ ago with the intention of praying for priestly vocations. That is the real 'spiritual powerhouse' of our diocese this article uses as a heading. Everything else described in this article is a product of that.

I comment as a priest of this diocese, a diocese of which I think is second to none, when one considers the bishop, the clergy and religious and the laity -it is a true application of the theology and vision of Lumen Gentium!

Kate said...

Thank you for the comments Father.

I didn't pick up the Adoration from the website, which I agree must be a very critical factor, and I'll note that in the post.

Alas, no one from Wagga Wagga had responded to my invitation to point me to the key things to highlight for their diocese!

But I'm certainly happy to take corrections and make additions, so please do let me know what facts don't seem quite right. I've done my best to rely on authoritative sources as much as possible and cross-check, but that doesn't mean errors don't creep in.

In terms of terminology, this is a topic worth debating but from my point of view, I'm not trying to suggest that one or other style is more or less catholic.

But just as the religious orders represent different schools of spirituality, I do think there are several quite distinctive schools of spirituality around today, and the terms I've used are just shorthand ways of indicating what those are.

Changing a pope certainly isn't like changing a political party, yet each Pope emphasizes different things, and brings a different way of presenting the faith to the role.

Similarly, different bishops have adopted quite different strategies in terms of governing their dioceses (your owns contrasts somewhat with the 'let a thousand flowers bloom in Perth', for example), and I think the effectiveness of these different approaches are interesting and important to look at.

That's not to suggest that what works in one place will work equally well somewhere else - while there will be some constants, history and local circumstances are important too.

But this is a much debated topic!

Finally, on Latin, the canonical requirement is to be 'well versed' in Latin.

I don't think a standard Latin course could get easily through Collins in two semesters (certainly the ACU one doesn't, covering only around 24 of the 35 chapters if I recall correctly).

Getting to a point where one could read things like canon law sources, untranslated papal documents, and the old standard manuals, many of which remain untranslated, with some degree of flunecy would surely require more like two years then one!