Recruiting Priests With Slick Movie Ad

New York City diocese is battling a priest shortage at a theater near you.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 10:46 AM

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, 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?"

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.