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Recruiting For The Priesthood A Hard Sell In France

A French newspaper displays an advertisement recruiting young men to be Catholic priests. The French church has launched a public relations campaign to try to update the image of the priest and reverse the decline in numbers of French men entering the vocation. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Roman Catholic Church in Europe is struggling with a shortage of priests. In France, the number of priests has been in steady decline since the 1960s. Determined to reverse that trend, the Catholic Church recently launched a public relations campaign meant to attract more young men to the priesthood.

But the campaign has come at a difficult time, amid ever-expanding sex scandals, and its intended targets are skeptical.

On a recent Sunday, bells call the faithful to morning Mass at St. Christophe de Javel Catholic Church in Paris' 15th arrondissement.

The Rev. Paul Ndour leads the congregation in song and prayer. An African priest from Senegal, Ndour has been preaching at St. Christophe since last August, and he will stay in France for two years.

Ndour is one of about 1,500 foreign priests in parishes across the country who are helping to fill in for the dearth of French priests. Ndour says his time in France has been a wonderful opportunity for him and his congregation.

They're trying to show they're hip by using English words. But it's not some slogan or a few flashy colors on a postcard that's going to attract people. The Catholic Church is full of scandals and has to do its mea culpa.
Nicolas Dolivera, student at the Sorbonne

"This has been a rich experience that has fostered more openness on both sides. For example, before, I had an image of French priests as missionaries or colonizers. But now I see that I was wrong," Ndour says. "And I also feel that I'm teaching the congregation many things through our exchanges."

Improving The Image Of French Priests

In the 1960s, there were about 41,000 priests in France. Today, there are around 15,000. About 800 priests die each year, and only 100 are ordained.

Frederic Fonfroide de Lafon is the head of the firm that the church has hired to run its public relations campaign. He says to attract new priests the church must first improve the image of the priest in France.

"Priests suffer from a low social status, so we're trying to change that by showing what being a priest really means. A priest has extensive training in philosophy and the humanities. He is not someone who lives apart from society in his own world, but someone who participates," Fonfroide de Lafon says.

"A priest accompanies people in the most important moments of their lives," he adds.

The campaign tries to reach out to the public with newspaper inserts and brochures that showcase real priests and their passion for people and humanity. The campaign is also distributing 50,000 postcards in cafes, cinemas and on college campuses specifically aimed at 16- to 22-year-olds.

Fonfroide de Lafon says the recent child abuse scandals haven't hurt the campaign, but instead made it more important than ever for the church to show the important work that priests do every day.

Need For Mea Culpa, Modernization

But in a student center at the Sorbonne, history major Nicolas Dolivera stares skeptically at one of the cards. On it, a smiling young man holds a cardboard cutout of a priest's collar and jacket. A button on the lapel reads "Jesus is my boss" in English. The caption "Why Not?" -- also in English -- is printed across the bottom of the card.

"They're trying to show they're hip by using English words," Dolivera says. "But it's not some slogan or a few flashy colors on a postcard that's going to attract people. The Catholic Church is full of scandals and has to do its mea culpa."

Church officials say they are pleased with the campaign's reception; its Facebook page has had 40,000 visitors already.

Near the university, 21-year-old Maxime Bermann is hanging out with his friends. He has seen the church's campaign on the Internet. But he thinks it will be difficult to draw more young people to the priesthood as long as there are so many arcane rules.

"[The church] seems to look back to old values that don't mean anything to young people today. They have to show with actions that they are able to modernize and not only with cards," Bermann says.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Catholic Church in Europe is struggling with a shortage of priests. In France, the number of priests has been in steady decline since the 1960s. So, to help reverse the trend, the French Catholic Church recently launched a public relations campaign.

Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

(Soundbite of bells)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Bells call the faithful to Sunday morning Mass at St. Christophe de Javel Catholic in Paris' 15th�arrondissement.

(Soundbite of bells)

BEARDSLEY: The congregation is led in song and prayer by Father Paul Ndour. Ndour is an African priest from Senegal. He has been preaching at St. Christophe since last August, and will stay in France for two years.

(Soundbite of singing)

BEARDSLEY: Ndour is one of about 1,500 foreign priests in parishes across the country who are helping to fill in for the dearth of French priests. Ndour says his time in France has been a wonderful opportunity for both him and his congregation.

Father PAUL NDOUR (St. Christophe): (Through Translator) This has been a rich experience that has fostered more openness on both sides. For example, before, I had an image of French priests as missionaries or colonizers. But now I see that I was wrong. And I also feel that I'm teaching the congregation many things through our exchanges.

BEARDSLEY: In the 1960s, there were about 41,000 priests in France. Today, there are around 15,000. About 800 priests die each year, and only 100 are ordained.

Frederic Fonfroide de Lafon is the head of the firm that's been hired to run the church's public relations campaign. He says to attract new clergy the church must first improve the image of the priest in France.

Mr. FREDERIC FONFROIDE DE LAFON (Public Relations, St. Christophe): Priests suffer from a low social status, so we're trying to change that by showing what being a priest really means. A priest has extensive training in philosophy and the humanities. He is not someone who lives apart from society in his own world, but someone who participates. A priest accompanies people in the most important moments of their lives.

BEARDSLEY: The campaign tries to reach out to the public with newspaper inserts and brochures that showcase real priests and their passion for people and humanity. The campaign is also distributing 50,000 postcards in cafes, cinemas and on college campuses specifically aimed at 16 to 22-year-olds.

(Soundbite of students)

BEARDSLEY: In a student center at the Sorbonne University, history major Nicolas Dolivera stares skeptically at one of the cards. On it, a smiling young man holds a cardboard cutout of a priest's collar and jacket. A button on the lapel reads: Jesus is my boss, in English. And the caption: Why Not? - also in English - is printed across the bottom of the card.

Mr. NICOLAS DOLIVERA: (Through translator): They're trying to show they're hip by using English words. But it's not some slogan or a few flashy colors on a postcard that's going to attract people. The Catholic Church is full of scandals and has to do its mea culpa first.

BEARDSLEY: Church officials say theyre pleased with the campaign's reception and their Facebook page has had 40,000 visitors already.

(Soundbite of students)

BEARDSLEY: Near the university, 21-year-old Maxime Bermann is hanging out with his friends. He's seen the Church's campaign on the Internet, but he thinks it will be difficult to draw more young people to the priesthood as long as there are so many arcane rules.

Mr. MAXIME BERMANN: Today the Church really looks - seems to look back to old values that doesn't mean anything to young people today. They have to show with actions that they are able to modernize and not only with cards.

BEARDSLEY: P.R. director Fonfroide de Lafon says the recent child abuse scandals haven't hurt the campaign, but instead made it more crucial than ever for the church to show the important work that priests do every day.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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