Ads aim to draw more priests

Detroit, USA - The music on the televised public service announcement sounds like heavenly, beckoning strings.

Words appear on the screen: "Religious life, making a difference, try it on." Then, the Rev. Rick Samyn talks about his answer to God's call to be a priest.

"How am I going to apply the gospel?" Samyn says, in the spot broadcast by the Archdiocese of Detroit. "I had a passion to make sense out of what it would be to be a Christian, what it is to apply the gospel."

Catholic dioceses like Detroit and Gaylord are increasing efforts to market the priesthood, hoping to prevail against secular trends and scandal, even as the number of priests dwindles to crisis levels. While some Catholics wonder who will provide the sacraments and religious counsel in the future and some advocate expanding the recruiting base beyond celibate men, the church hopes that a creative use of television and one-on-one meetings will increase the ranks of priests.

The televised marketing may help achieve the goal, but a national survey reveals that it rarely results in a candidate for the priesthood finalizing his decision. Much like the chum spread by fishermen, the television spots helps draw men to a greater awareness of the priesthood, while vocational directors and parish priests do the one-on-one meetings that, far more often, lead to commitments.

The Diocese of Gaylord broadcasts commercials during high-profile sports events and other programming favored by men. The Archdiocese of Detroit airs public service announcements during its programming on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit.

"I see the TV spots as raising awareness, not just for those who might end up being priests, but for all Catholics to realize that the call to the priesthood is still there," said the Rev. Don Geyman, the delegate for vocations of the diocese in Gaylord, who appears in some of the commercials. "That doesn't happen automatically anymore for Catholic boys growing up today. We are successful in generating awareness that priests are happy in their lives and in their vocation, and that it is a very fulfilling life."

Candace Neff, the director of communications for the diocese, said Catholics profess happiness for the broadcasting that positively portrays their priests and the church.

But convincing a man to be a priest was not necessarily the intent of the marketing, and many involved with the vocation say there simply was a need to raise awareness that Catholic men should be "open to the call."

In recent years, they say, that emphasis has faded.

"Years ago, the church always asked if young men and women had considered a vocation," Neff said. "There were many, many more priests and sisters in the schools, and it was always asked."

A report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University, documents that relatively few -- perhaps only 2 percent of men pursuing the priesthood -- say that any advertising was "instrumental" to their discernment.

Eight in 10 say they were mostly encouraged by other priests. Close to half say that friends, parishioners or mothers provided the important nudge.

Nonetheless, those charged with encouraging the vocation say, advertising can be an important starting point.

"The most powerful thing is that personal contact," said the Rev. Tim Birney, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Detroit. "But it takes a little mass marketing and lot of education, and a lot of encouraging families and priests to personally invite young men, to at least consider it -- to plant the seed in their hearts and their minds."

Birney, seven months into his job, spends time traveling the sprawling archdiocese talking to men. He also offers a discernment weekend at Sacred Heart Major Seminary every year. Some 42 percent of men, nationally, who decide to pursue the priesthood say they have participated in such a program.

"I think there are different ways to plant the seed, and why not use the media," said Craig Giera, a seminarian. Giera, an artist, said his profound moments came when he took time off to paint and sculpt in his studio in Hamtramck. He found that the quiet time, prayer and reading led to contemplation. Next, he approached a priest, who introduced him to others.

"Also, the prayers of my mother, like the prayers of any mother, are the strongest," Giera said.

"But a key factor is for priests to promote who they are, how they are and what the life is. When people see that, they see happiness and truth, and they want to go for that."