Catholic Church Surfs for Recruits

Jan. 9, 2001 -- Roman Catholic officials are going online to find a few good men to answer God’s call.

As the Catholic Church faces a shortage of priests in the coming decades, at least 25 dioceses across the United States have set up Web sites to attract young men to the priesthood.

“It sounds like a business, but we’re in competition for the best and the brightest with medical schools and law schools,” says Father John Acrea, recruitment coordinator at the Des Moines, Iowa Catholic diocese, where 84 priests serve a congregation of about 100,000 people.

“The Internet is the way young people find information, so we have to be there and get the word out,” he says.

Pulpits Coming up Short

Most of the 188 U.S. dioceses — the geographical area over which a bishop has jurisdiction — don’t yet face an urgent shortage of priests. But church officials who recruit men for the holy job say they expect numbers to decline because fewer men are training at seminaries.

“People entering the seminary do not equate the number of priests retiring or dying,” says Father Bill Kubacki of the Toledo, Ohio diocese.

Statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University show a sharp decline of graduate-level seminary students over the past three and a half decades, from 8,325 enrolled in 1965 to 3,474 last year. In the same time period, the number of Catholics in the United States has risen over 30 percent, from around 45 million in 1965 to about 60 million today.

From Joliet, Ill. to Pittsburgh, Pa., cyber recruitment has taken off to extend the church’s reach and complement face-to-face efforts.

“In the past, most guys have been recruited through personal invitation” from priests or other church staff, Kubacki says.

Acrea says in Des Moines, more traditional avenues of finding priests, such as a well-known presence at Catholic schools and local churches, have dried up over the years — a trend he attributes to an increasingly mobile society. Families relocating to a new town or state can cut short relationships that form between churchgoers and their clergy, he says.

A Full Inbox

To keep up with the changing times and the dwindling reserves, the Des Moines diocese launched a Web site,, part of which was dedicated to recruiting men to the priesthood. This helped spawn a separate site dedicated solely to recruitment efforts for full-time or part-time priests, nuns, and Catholics in general. lists e-mail addresses and phone numbers where Father Acrea can be reached. Since their inception, Acrea says the sites have registered more than 14,000 visits and at least 80 e-mails from men interested in the priesthood.

“Oh my goodness, this is a full-time job, answering all these emails,” he says. Most of the e-mails are in the form of questions, he says, such as the requirements for the priesthood, the cost of training and the length of study. Many inquiries come from college graduates who are considering a second career, he says.

The diocese of Rochester, New York, which debuted its Web site this month, hopes its cyber presence will garner a similar response.

Serving a population of around 350,000, the diocese estimates its current number of priests to drop over the next 25 years, from about 155 priests today to 64 by 2025, according to Michael Tedesco, director of communications for the Rochester diocese.

“There’s a strong national awareness of the shortage,” he says.

Post Globally, Act Locally

So far, an overarching recruitment Web site or portal with high visibility doesn’t link the smaller, local Catholic Web sites, which are also gaining an international presence. (See related story.) But Kubacki says that’s not necessary because priest recruitment is most effective at the local level. Even e-mail contact is not enough, he says.

“There has to be some kind of face-to-face interaction,” he says, both to attract applicants and help the church size up potential priests.

Acrea says each diocese should look at the Internet as a single tool in a larger recruitment effort.

“The dioceses that don’t go for the whole mix of outreach don’t do very well,” he says.