Never underestimate the power of little old ladies, or of the God who listens to them.
In 1987, all that stood on the spacious, suburban site of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Chester Hill was a dilapidated chapel and a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Back then, the church’s small and declining congregation of mainly older women and their local area priest, Fr Kevin Spillane, began assailing God with prayers on Friday afternoons; urging Him to send priestly vocations to the area.
It was also the year that a young Melbournian, Eric Skruzny, acted on an abiding sense that God was calling him to the priesthood, joining the inaugural class of seminarians at the world’s first Redemptoris Mater, or ‘Mother of the Redeemer’, seminary in Rome.
“This is the place we were meant to be,” Fr Skruzny, the now-rector of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Sydney, says.
“Lo and behold, not only on this exact site do we get vocations; we get a whole seminary built as well.”
It was the then-newly appointed archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop George Pell who, in 2001, asked the Neocatechumenal Way to establish a seminary in the archdiocese and who encouraged its development.
Redemptoris Mater opened in Pagewood the following year; the age and impracticality of the site eventually prompting the search for a new home and construction on its current site in 2008.
After a four-year build, the seminary was officially opened in 2012 in a liveable – but incomplete – state.
Its chapel is yet to be funded and built and several of its facilities remain unfinished and consequently under–utilised, but Fr Skruzny has faith that it will all be completed somehow with the grace of God.
The seminary’s aesthetic is distinctly Neocatechumenal, bearing the cultural and liturgical hallmarks of the movement John Paul II described as an “itinerary of formation”; one which began in Madrid, Spain in 1964 and has since spread to 110 countries.
Its parish–based communities typically meet for Mass on Saturday nights and attend catecheses, or teaching, during the week, emulating the intimate communities of the early Church in which pagans and unbelievers were brought into the Church as brothers and sisters in the faith.
Every Redemptoris Mater seminarian hails from one of those communities; in Ecuador, Croatia, India and Australia, among many other countries.
Perhaps unusually, their continued involvement in a parish–based community here in Sydney will be at least as important in their preparation for the priesthood as their five-year academic formation.
“Seminary is not the place to give the students faith,” Fr Skruzny says.
“It’s an artificial community whereas a real Christian community needs to be formed of men, women, older, younger, all sorts of people in all sorts of situations.
“Once upon a time, seminarians came from stable families with a formation sufficient to further discern the mission of the priesthood, but that is no longer the case.
“Now we see family structures are different, also society is different in the sense that, to survive today, your faith needs to be stronger. Faith formation needs to continue.”
Ongoing communion with a community that learns, grows and worships together keeps seminarians grounded, Fr Skruzny says, with the men witnessing and assisting people in their struggles, receiving the fraternity of other members in their own turn.
“Seeing the difficulties of what it means to be a husband, for example,” he says. “As a person called to celibacy they can always dream, ‘Oh, it’s easier. I wish I was married’, but then, being in contact with husbands – hearing their experiences – they see that it is not easy. “Whatever your vocation is, it’s always a challenge.”
There are seven communities in the archdiocese of Sydney; in Pagewood, Earlwood, Liechhardt, Ingleburn (in the Wollongong diocese) and Baulkham Hills (in the Parramatta diocese).
Almost all the seminarians study at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, with a few studying at Notre Dame University in Broadway.
Their studies are funded out of the archdiocesan Catholic Works Fund, for which seminarians show their support by visiting parishes, once a year, to spruik its annual appeal.
Seven seminarians have been ordained, so far, with five serving in Sydney parishes, one in Wilcannia Forbes, and the other doing further Biblical studies in Rome.
Of the seminary’s four new entrants in 2015, three hail from Australian communities; the highest proportion of Australian entrants in any year since 2002.
Two are from what, in the Way, are called “mission families” – typically a husband and wife and their children who volunteer to be sent out on mission – including to other countries – to become a sign of Christian witness in their societies, offer catecheses and to help establish or sustain parish communities.
Originally from Melbourne, one family was sent on mission to Perth before serving in Papua New Guinea for six years, deciding to return to Australia when their children got older.
Another seminarian’s family, also from Melbourne, served on mission in Broome, WA – a town with a large Aboriginal population – for eight years before he decided to join Redemptoris Mater.
“They’ve had a taste of the Church; they’ve had a taste of the mission,” Fr Skruzny said.
“They’ve seen the sufferings of people and they’ve seen the good a community can do for people. So they want to spend their lives forming these parish communities where they see that even people in broken situations can have a great change of life. And that is amazing.
“Often, you can work in a normal pastoral situation as a priest in a parish, and you can work and work and work, and you see people get older, but to see people really change in life; to see marriages being rebuilt; people with all sorts of addictions actually coming off these addictions; that’s the biggest draw I think – seeing actually-changing lives.
“And sometimes they meet people who are not ready for the main Church and [members of the community] say ‘come to my house and have a moment of prayer’, and they invite one of our priests.
“And so they have a slow introduction to the life of the Church, and that is joy.”
Some accuse the Neocatechumenal Way of poaching Catholics from the parish; drawing them into their own, insular groupings.
It’s an accusation Fr Skruzny rejects as mistaken and contrary to their parish-based reality.
“Most of the priests who have contact with our seminarians like our seminarians. But there is still a bit of fear or caution about the Neocatechumenal Way,” he says.
“We are one of these new ecclesial movements and realities so, basically, one of the challenges is to break down those barriers.”
Fr Skruzny points to a typical Australian parish of around 1000 people where there might be three weekend masses – a vigil Mass on Saturday, and two Masses on Sunday morning. Those who attend one of those masses seldom attend one of the other two, he says, and so a parish is likely to have, in practice, three separate congregations of around 300 people each.
“Are they divided? No, because you’ve got the one priest who presides at all three masses, so he’s the source of unity at all three masses.
“The people at the 9am Mass don’t feel divided from Saturday night, and we say that it’s the same with the Neocatechumenal liturgy.”
Their small congregations relative to the numbers at an average parish mass have also raised some eyebrows, but their size is relatively small for a reason.
“We often give the example of intensive care, which to others can seem a bit unfair: ‘Why has he got a doctor for himself when we are ten and only have one?’
“But the one in intensive care needs more help, and so the one in intensive care will hopefully come back to health and be released. That’s how we see the Neocatechumenal Way communities.”
The idea that Catholics are being poached away from already existing masses is wide of the mark, he says. This is no less true in parishes with a Catholic school where perhaps out of 1000 children, around 10 might attend Mass with their families.
“But we are seeing in our communities that parents come; they bring their children along. The children are happy to be there.
“They go and listen to the catecheses and the faith is really being passed on.
“So, now, we are seeing children who were born into the community 25-30 years ago, who now have families themselves.
“They’ve been open to life and now these children are in community. We see that it’s a formula that seems to be working.”
Fr Skruzny encourages priests who have any questions about the Way to visit the seminary, to get to know them, and to see how they do things. He also extends an invitation:
“Why not be involved in setting up a Neocatechumenal Way community in your own parish?”
“One of the barriers [for priests] is that ‘I don’t need more work’; [priests] are already working hard.
“I tell them that to participate in the life of one of our communities is a relaxation; it’s a joy. You’re there with the lay people who organise the liturgy; you’re there as the president [of the liturgy].
“You can open up a little bit and speak about your own struggles and suffering if you want to and the people get to know you a bit more.
“For me, I think it is a joy to be involved; that it is good and helpful for me. The less time I spend in my own time, for myself, the happier I am.”
But it would be a mistake to think that the Way’s parish–based communities were some sort of rapid panacea for declining congregations, he says.
Nevertheless, he contends that they are a good step towards welcoming the unchurched and the lapsed back into a substantive relationship with God and with others.
“A priest needs to be visionary and say, ‘Well look, unless we do something now, things are not going to get better’. I’ve seen around Sydney, in parishes I’ve been involved since I arrived, we had 1000 people coming to Mass, but today we’ve got 300. These people have disappeared.
“So the parish priest [who welcomes the establishment of a parish based community in his parish] needs to be patient, and he needs the foresight to say, ‘Look, maybe this is something I will begin’.
“‘Maybe it is my successor who will see the fruits’.”
Originally published 24 May 2015.