American priests get the hard sell

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The Independent Online
A CATHOLIC diocese in Illinois has just completed an unusual experiment in attracting recruits: an aggressive advertising campaign on television, radio and road-side billboards.

It is an effort that has drawn the attention of the church all across America as it faces a worsening shortage of young men interested in joining the priesthood. For every 100 men who were enrolling in US seminaries three decades ago, there are only 40 today, according to some estimates.

Such is the worry in Rockford, Illinois, a small city northwest of Chicago, that it is celebrating its success in enrolling just two young men after the advertising campaign.

Its signature feature were the billboards placed alongside the highways running into the city that showed a giant image of Jesus on the cross. Underneath, it blared: "Dare to be a priest like me".

With a budget of $55,000, the Rockford diocese also had 1,000 advertising spots on television and radio. The television version showed young priests conducting the different activities of the ministry between the trills of a telephone. Its catchline said simply: "They have had the call. How about you?"

"I am sure there are those that think the campaign was silly," Father Martin Heinz, head of recruitment for the diocese, admitted yesterday. "But I don't care, I really don't. We have to be out there where the young people are and getting them to take a look and think about the church. For 20 years we have done nothing about vocation. We have constantly been complaining about the shortage of priests without ever doing anything about it."

Although the campaign netted only two young men, both of college age, Fr Heinz said it was worth the effort and plans to repeat the exercise in Rockford next year. He says the need is urgent because while the diocese still has enough priests for each of its churches, the average age is 58. That means a large number of priests retiring and too few to take their places.

"Every diocese throughout the land is facing the same challenge," said Fr David Bonnar, who heads recruiting for Pittsburgh - another city facing a crunch in numbers. While the city's diocese expects to ordain eight priests this year, there will be none ready to be ordained in 1999.

For years, the strict code of celibacy for Catholic priests has been identified as probably the biggest disincentive for young men considering a career in the ministry. Some Church officials believe that the numbers of new priests would quadruple if the celibacy requirement was eliminated.

However, Fr Heinz is sceptical that celibacy is really the problem. "Certainly it is a sacrifice to accept that you are not going to have a family, but it is not an impossible lifestyle. When I talk to young people about joining the church, celibacy is number nine or ten on the points that they raise," he said.