Jan. 4, 2008 -- Responding to a decline in interest in the priesthood, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has launched a campaign to find recruits in the most unlikely of places — the movie house.
In a slick, 60-second movie trailer, the church proclaims "The World Needs Heroes," accompanied by dramatic music and an array of images: the Statue of Liberty against an American flag, a funeral procession of firefighters and the battlefield.
"We are trying to break through the misconceptions of what it is to be a priest," said the Rev. Luke Sweeney, vocation director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. "Priests are real men first and then called to be a spiritual father. The young want to do great things, and the priesthood is one of the things that might call you."
The inspirational and hard-hitting ad is part of a larger year-long campaign that targets young men who may consider becoming a priest -- and their parents, who, church experts say, also need convincing.
The trailer directs viewers to the Web site NYPriest.com, which offers details on what Sweeney calls an "avocation, not a career." The site directly answers questions like, "Will I be lonely? Can a priest take vacations? And how hard is celibacy?"
Decline in Recruits
Over the last 30 years, the number of men entering the priesthood has declined dramatically -- in spite of a resurgence of religion in presidential politics and in the national culture.
At the height of recruitment in 1950, the New York Archdiocese ordained about 50 priests, according to Sweeney. This year, it expects to ordain only five men.
In 1965, 70 percent of the nation's Catholics attended weekly mass with one priest for every 540 attendees, according to a report by USA Today. By 2003, fewer than 30 percent of Catholics attended weekly with one priest for every 448.
Between 1975 and 2003, the number of U.S. Catholics increased by 32 percent from 48.7 million to 64.3 million, according to FutureChurch, a Catholic organization that pushes for reform.
At the same time, the number of priests dropped 22 percent from 58,909 to only 45,699 in 2003. The number of U.S. seminarians decreased by 38 percent to 3,285 in 2003 compared to 5,275 in 1975, according to the survey.
Sweeney says there are a variety of reasons why men are not joining up: fewer inspiring role models; smaller families who are less apt to encourage their sons to take on vows of celibacy; and little understanding of "the full life of priesthood."
The advertisement is running in three theaters in New York. Officials say they still don't yet know the impact but are hoping to drive traffic to their Web site.
This isn't the first time the church has turned to publicity pros. In 1987, to coincide with a visit by then-Pope John Paul II, the Archdiocese of Detroit hired the same agency that had created widely praised ads for the U.S. military to do print ads.
"We're looking to collar a few good men," the ads proclaimed.
Just last month, the Australian Catholic Church began running ads in its movie theaters to coincide with Christmas, according to CathNews reports.
The current "Heroes" trailer shows priests in a variety of settings: caring for the sick and administering last rites, and serving against the backdrop of bustling Times Square and in the Third World.
The images are based on the 18-minute film "Fishers of Men," which was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 to use as a resource in a national recruitment project.
The project — which portrays priests in all facets of daily life — was intended to renew priests' "sense of fulfillment in their vocation" and to invite other men to pursue the priesthood, the church says.
The project's research had shown that 78 percent of ordained seminarians had been asked by a priest to consider the vocation.
"We were happy to help," said Joe Campo of Brooklyn-based Grassroots Films, who produced the trailer. "It's an upbeat look. Most people have their own views or bad views of the priesthood."
The campaign comes at a difficult time for the church, which was rocked by a clergy sex abuse scandal that began in 2002. But church officials say the priest shortage began long before that.
Impact of Scandal
"The scandal has an impact, of course," said Sweeney. "But in this society, where instant gratification is the norm and rule, the willingness to embrace a life of celibacy and willingness to give something good for the greater good is not easy," he said. "The main problem is one of spirituality and faith."
The publication Catholic World reported in 2006 that the New York is 167th of an estimated 190 archdioceses in the ratio of seminarians to the Catholic population, according to Sweeney.
The New York Archdiocese is hoping a modern approach might help turn the tide, even though a church study showed men being ordained were influenced primarily by other priests, not Web sites or advertisements.
Some who have viewed the trailer question whether a movie theater is the right venue.
"I can't imagine it would make you join the ranks," said one 29-year-old who had been raised a Catholic. "The priesthood is a lifelong calling, and I don't see how a 60-second ad can convince you to take that step in life."
Still, she said, the ad "stood out" and was "surprising" and "powerful."
Sweeney defends this direct approach. "Before we can get a young man to consider a vocation, we need to sell the priesthood first," he said. "If we don't ask a young man to consider the possibility of the priesthood, why should he consider it?"
The archdiocese is also using tools like YouTube to paint a picture of priests as real men. A video of seminarians playing soccer to the sound track of the Rolling Stones has drawn 64 viewers in the last two weeks.
The church is also targeting parents, who are less eager to encourage their sons to enter the priesthood.
"Parents can either be a great asset or a great challenge," said Sweeney, 33. "Many times we hear the mantra, 'I don't want my son to be a priest.' They are immediately biased in their mind-set."
Spirituality is based in the family, according to Sweeney, whose own journey began in the fifth grade.
Growing up in Irvington, N.Y., he rejected his pastor's first offer to enter the priesthood, and was torn between being an astronaut or a priest. One year later, the latter held more sway.
"I had a good, stable family who were devout, practiced their faith and were open to the idea of me becoming whatever I wanted," said Sweeney, who was ordained at 26.
"If a young person is not seeing family lived out in sacrifice, commitment and lifelong love, it's hard for them to imagine that in their own lives," he said.
Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham University Center of Religion and Culture and former senior religious correspondent for The New York Times, believes resistance to the priesthood goes deeper than that.
"Fundamentally, there is very serious and growing shortage of priests," said Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America."
"Over the years there have been quite a number of campaigns to recruit priests, but this is a new twist in a theater setting," according to Steinfels, who said most efforts were not successful.
Steinfels blames priest disillusionment after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) when the church dragged its heels after a dialogue to "update" its thinking on issues such as birth control, the role of priests and even attitudes toward celibacy.
"You get the standard explanation that society is more materialistic, that people shy away from the commitment, but it is the celibacy issue," he said. "All the issues raised by those critical [of it] have some truth. But there are other factors — the demography and the size of Catholic families."
Having a child go on to serve as a priest or a nun was a "great source of pride" for families several decades ago, he said. But with changing demographics and smaller families, parents expect grandchildren and are less supportive of children who consider a commitment to celibacy.
So, too, is the "changing view of marriage," he said. "The church has a more positive view of marriage as a way to holiness. Years ago, compared to nuns and priests, the married were second-class citizens."
The church has also turned its back on a large pool of talent for the priesthood — women. "It's a quality issue," he said. "There's a very motivated, interested [group] who have been blocked."
Steinfels contends Catholics are not losing their sense of spirituality; rather, they are choosing to serve in a lay capacity, in education and in other roles once assumed only by priests.
"They think of it as a calling, the holy spirit in action," he said.
New York's vocational director Sweeney is optimistic that the "Heroes" campaign, whether in movie theaters or on YouTube, can begin to turn the numbers around.
Still, the fight is especially hard in a city like New York.
"It's the secularism, the materialism, consumerism and hedonism," Sweeney said. "It makes for an exciting and challenging place, but it doesn't help nurture a choice in life which is looking to consecrate God."
To visit the Web site or view the movie ad, visit NYPriest.com