A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COUNCIL
AAPROCC and NCP
Efforts towards an organisation for the continuing education of priests in Australia began some years after the Second Vatican Council. Before then it was the practice of some religious orders to send their priests for special studies, or "sabbaticals", after ordination and to offer their members time off for "renewals" of various kinds. Diocesan priests also, usually those who were destined to teach in seminaries, were sent for special studies overseas to prepare themselves. For the most part, priests were left to themselves and their own reading to continue their formation begun in the seminary.
In the early 70s there were stirrings among diocesan priests in different parts of Australia. Days together and meetings were arranged to discuss the situation and needs of priests in Australia in the new situation that was developing in the church after the Second Vatican Council. The annual meetings of priests at the Hume Weir on the border of New South Wales and Victoria were particularly significant.
These meetings spread over several days were largely the initiative of priests of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga with encouragement from their Bishop, Frank Carroll, Bishop of Wagga Wagga 1968-83. From the Hume Weir meetings developed an organisation called the Australian Association for the Pastoral Renewal of Catholic Clergy (AAPROCC). Coinciding with AAPROCC and in response to other initiatives of priests the National Council of Priests (NCP) came into being. In response to requests from the NCP, and other initiatives, the Bishops Conference established St Peter Centre in Canberra as a renewal centre for priests.
St Peter Centre 1982-1993
From 1982 to 1993, 333 and some pastoral associates, including women, from around Australia and from overseas took the three-month courses that were offered twice a year at St Peter Centre in Canberra. Each course covered a wide range of subjects touching the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral development of an Australian priest. A number of priests from religious orders also participated in these courses.
The founding director of St Peter Centre was Father John Ryan of the Sandhurst Diocese in Victoria. The work was continued under a second director, Father Tony Loth of Wagga Wagga Diocese, and the Centre's third and last director, Father Peter Christie of the Sydney Archdiocese. The courses drew lecturers, retreat directors, and facilitators from all around Australia. Those who did the courses were generally very appreciative of their time at the Centre and went back to their work with a new energy. The numbers, however, were not enough to warrant the financial burden of the Centre's continuation and the Bishops Conference made the decision to close it. Its last course, which had 14 participants, finished in July 1993.
Ministry to Priests
Meanwhile another initiative developed, again through a collaborative effort of diocesan priests and the Australian Bishops Conference. In the mid-80s with the encouragement of Bishop Ron Mulkearns, Bishop of Ballarat and Chairman of the Bishops Committee for Clergy and Religious, 16 of the 28 dioceses opted to set up a program to assist the human and spiritual development of their priests. This was the Ministry to Priests program, a package borrowed from the United States and with the assistance of Father Vincent Dwyer from America adapted for Australia. Three religious orders also participated: Melbourne Sisters of Mercy, Ballarat Sisters of Mercy, and Queensland Christian Brothers.
Ministry to Priests encouraged and taught priests to minister to one another on a one-to-one basis or in small group meetings for their mutual personal development. The focus was their growth and development in ordinary human relationships and their growth and development in their spiritual relations with God.
To coordinate this program an Australian branch of the USA Centre for Human Development was established in August 1985 at Farrer in Canberra with Father John Ryan, the first director of St Peter Centre, as its director. In April 1989 this centre was separated from its parent body in the USA when the Bishops established the Catholic Institute for Ministry (CIM) with Fr John Ryan as director to be the coordinating centre for the Ministry to Priests program in the 16 dioceses. CIM continued until the end of 1992 when it was closed by the Bishops Conference in preparation for its new initiative in setting up a Commission with a wide-ranging mandate embracing the activity that was coordinated nationally by CIM.
THE COMMISSION (now COUNCIL)
The decision to establish the Australian Catholic Commission for the Continuing Education of Priests was made by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in December 1992. The Bishops issued a constitution in December 1992 that put the ongoing education of priests after ordination on a new footing. This decision was made after consultation with priests and in the light of the recent post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II on the formation of priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis, published in March 1992.
Pastores Dabo Vobis directed that a priest's continuing education is to include all aspects of his ongoing personal and professional. A National Director was appointed in April 1993 and then a representative commission of twelve persons, consisting of two bishops, five priests, three lay persons and two religious, which met for the first time in August 1993.
The Commission was to be a national body responsible to the Bishops Conference. Its mandate was to further both the personal and professional development of clergy after their ordination. This includes a priest's ongoing human and spiritual growth, as well as his professional knowledge and practical skills in scripture, theology, preaching, liturgy, and pastoral leadership in the church, including parish organisation and management. Freedom was given to the Commission to assist in the most effective ways possible the continuing personal and professional growth of ordained leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia today.
All members of the Commission are directly appointed by the Bishops Conference and for a period of three years. There are two bishops, nominated by the Bishops Committee for Clergy and Religious; five priests, one from each ecclesiastical provinces of the country, nominated by the Diocesan Directors for continuing education of priests in the different dioceses; three lay persons, nominated by the Bishops Committee for Clergy and Religious; and two religious, nominated by the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes.
The National Director of the Commission was appointed by the Bishops Conference, initially for a period of three years, and was accountable to the Commission and its Executive. The office of the Commission for Continuing Education of Priests was located in Canberra on the top floor of Favier House at 1 Ballumbir Street in the centre of the city. Since 1994 the Commission has been meeting twice a year, and the Executive has held meetings in between these Commission meetings.
The Commission is accountable to the Bishops Conference and is evaluated by the Conference every three years. After a first evaluation of the Commission in 1997, the Bishops Conference affirmed the work of the Commission and the main thrust of its activities towards the support of diocesan activities and its networking among diocesan directors of continuing education of clergy. It also changed the title of the National Director to Executive Officer of the Commission.
In 2001, after a further triennial evaluation of the Commission, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference re-affirmed again the Commission in its present form, but decided that to reflect better the scope and direction of its activities the title of the Commission be changed to National Commission for Clergy Life and Ministry. The change from the word "Priests" to "Clergy" reflected the Commission's role in the life and ministry also of Bishops and Deacons.
In May 2006 the name of the National Commission was changed to AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC COUNCIL FOR CLERGY LIFE AND MINISTRY and Executive Officer was changed to Director.