Australia's Catholic flocks look abroad for shepherds

Sydney, Australia - The farther a country leaves poverty behind, the greater the difficulty it has finding young men wanting to train as priests. Australia used to recruit Catholic pastors from Ireland and other parts of Europe where affluence was yet to prevail. They have stopped coming and now congregations look to India, the Philippines, even Spanish-speaking South America, to put someone in the pulpit.

"It's not a new thing for a country like Australia to be welcoming priests or missionaries from another nation to help us sort of fulfil our priestly ministerial needs," Brian Heenan, a Catholic bishop in the north-east city of Rockhampton, said before flying off to India on a recruitment drive.

As was the case with the Irish last century, the offer is a short-term contract with an option to stay for life.

"So these priests will come, please God, for maybe two years or three years and if all is going well they'll probably go back to India and others will come and take their place," Bishop Heenan said.

A quarter of Australia's 21 million people profess to be Catholic. But only 7 per cent of Catholics in their 20s regularly attend Mass.

Seminaries have closed for want of seminarians. And only a third of seminarians stay the course and become priests.

Catholicism is in retreat in Australia faster than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

"There are so many opportunities available for young people once they have finished their education," Heenan said. "And I think they find those much more attractive than going off to a seminary or a training college, where the rate of recompense or pay is very ordinary."