Crisis-hit French church rebrands to woo recruits

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The Independent Online

A beaming young man holds a placard under his chin, illustrated with a cartoon-style dog collar and garish green jacket. Underneath his yellow lapel badge proclaiming "Jesus is my boss", a bold slogan asks "Why not?".

This image, adorning 70,000 postcards distributed to young people across France, is part of an unprecedented recruitment drive launched this week by the French Catholic Church. The €200,000 (£170,000) publicity campaign is an attempt to modernise the church's image and attract new members to a clergy in crisis. France has fewer than a hundred ordinations each year. In 1998, the country had more than 20,000 parish priests; since then numbers have fallen by over 25 per cent.

The "why not?" postcard is aimed at 16- to 22-year-olds and refers them to a website and a Facebook group with more information. The cards will be distributed in 600 cafés, restaurants, cinemas and record shops across France, the new "temples" for young people. The French Bishops' Conference hopes to "reach out to the young when they are asking themselves questions about their future".

For 22- to 30-year-olds, the Church has produced a more serious-looking brochure entitled "A job as minister?" to be handed out in chaplaincies, universities and colleges. Information on seminary training is accompanied by personal accounts from trainee priests such as Benoît, 32, who exclaims: "I'm passionate about Christ and I want to announce it to everyone".

Those over 30 will be targeted by advertisements in top daily newspapers encouraging them to donate to seminaries. In one advert, a photogenic priest in his thirties says: "I'm a man like any other. I help people through the big events in their life. I'm passionate about Christ and not afraid to say it."

The French Catholic Church is clearly concerned to show that priesthood is a profession for modern, dynamic and, above all, normal people in a country where 60 per cent of the population are Catholic but mass attendance is low.

For Christian Terras, editor of the "Catholic and critical" magazine Golias, it will take more than a Facebook group to modernise the profession. "The vocational model in Europe is outdated and bankrupt. The Church is targeting single men again."

A recent study revealed that the typical French trainee priest comes from a large Catholic family, with an executive father and housewife mother.

The publicity campaign has come at an especially awkward time for the Church, whose image has been severely tarnished by the recent paedophilia scandals. Monseigneur Podvin, a spokesman for the Bishops' Conference, said that the Church's shame over the paedophilia revelations shouldn't prevent it from recruiting.

The Church's image in France did receive a more unexpected boost this week – two French priests and a seminarian have just topped the album charts with their platinum crossover disc Spiritus Dei.

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