The Age (Australia)
March 5, 2011
Wednesday morning Mass at St Aloysius in north Caulfield, and barely a dozen of the faithful are scattered through the handsome old Catholic church built to house 1000, as Father Gerard Diamond celebrates the sacrament.
Two hours later, he is leading Mass again at St Anthony's in Glen Huntly for a healthier congregation of about 50. Father Diamond has no idea how many times he has said Mass but, at an average of nearly 450 a year for 44 years, he is verging on 20,000.
He has been parish priest at Glen Huntly since 1992, but in 2003 he ''acquired'' the Caulfield parish, and in 2008 the two parishes were formally merged.
Advertisement: Story continues below Father Diamond's telescoping parish ministry is a fine example of trends in the Australian Catholic church, which a new report says faces ''imminent disaster''.
The report, Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster?, is a statistical analysis by former priest Peter Wilkinson, a senior research fellow at the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs on behalf of an active lay group, Catholics for Ministry.
It shows that from a peak of one priest for every 518 Catholics in 1966, there is now one for every 1895 Catholics. But that ratio counts 1431 retired priests and those not in parish ministry - the real figure is much higher. In New South Wales in 15 years, it could be one priest for as many as 22,000 Catholics, one for every 13,000 in Victoria.
The catastrophic decline in parish priests - which will intensify as the boom clerical generation ordained between 1955 and 1975 retires or dies - comes as the Catholic population is rising rapidly, largely due to immigration. In 2010, based on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, the Catholic population was 5.6 million, up 470,000 from the 2006 Census.
Already one in four Australian parishes is without a full-time priest. The Australian bishops - banned by Rome from even mentioning the possibility of married priests or women priests - are trying to meet the challenge by merging parishes and recruiting priests from overseas, often on short-term arrangements - a strategy, according to Dr Wilkinson, ''of despair and desperation''.
Since 1994 184 parishes have merged. Today 1282 Australian parishes have 1523 priests but by 2025, the report says, there may be as few as 600 home-grown priests for a Catholic population estimated to top 7 million.
But Dr Wilkinson says importing overseas priests - now 20 per cent of the Australian total - is no solution. Soon recruitment countries such as Nigeria, India and the Philippines will not be able to spare priests, and those who come now often struggle to adapt to Australian life and have a different focus - they see themselves as missionaries engaged in the re-evangelisation of Australia.
Catholics for Ministry co-founder Paul Collins shares that concern. ''Many of these foreign priests are inexperienced and come from cultures that are tribal and patriarchal. They have little or no comprehension of the kinds of faith challenges that face Catholics living in a secular, individualistic, consumerist culture that places a strong emphasis on equality, women's rights and co-responsibility between clergy and lay people,'' he said.
Dr Wilkinson says the situation is far more serious than he anticipated. ''The crisis is real and the scale is huge. The question is, what are the bishops able or prepared to do, and, from what I can gather, Rome keeps a very tight rein on them.''
He said the figures showed priests would be forced to focus on the sacraments and Eucharist at the expense of other important duties such as pastoral care.
Father Diamond accepts that priestly ministry is changing, but thinks a well-run parish can still cope. In a secular job he would have his feet up already, but priests do not retire until 75, seven years away. In fact, he knows he will be needed much longer - as long as he is mentally and physically capable.