A March 29 Metro article incorrectly said that 3,251 Roman Catholic parishes in the country are without priests. That is the number of parishes without a full-time resident pastor, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Many of them share pastors with another parish.
Hearing God's Call In Search for Happiness
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Picking at her black fingernail polish and fiddling with her shirt and shoulder-length blond hair, 16-year-old Chelsea Sledgeski seems every bit the typical teen.
Like her friends on the basketball team or her classmates hanging around Anne Arundel County's new malls and subdivisions, she has pressures: divorced parents, an injury that landed her on the team bench and an argument she just had with her father about her report card.
In the past few months, though, she has found a salve. It sets her apart from her family, her neighbors, even her friends at Our Lady of the Fields Catholic Church, where she stood beaming at a packed youth Mass one recent Sunday night.
Sledgeski is considering becoming a nun.
When she talks about what would attract a suburban girl with a sparkly shirt and a safari-themed room to a life of chastity and poverty, her first words aren't about devoting herself to the needy or saving souls from eternal damnation. Her inspiration sounds pretty pragmatic: Nuns and priests seem really happy compared with adults traveling other life routes.
"God brings happiness. And if you are a priest or a nun, you know that you will always bring happiness. And you always have somewhere to turn to find an escape," she said of her exploration.
U.S. Catholic Church officials are eager to hear comments such as hers as they conduct an intensified campaign to reverse the plunge in Catholics pursuing religious vocations. In the United States last year, 454 priests were ordained, down from 994 in 1965. In that period, the U.S. Catholic population swelled from 45 million to nearly 65 million, leaving 3,251 parishes without priests. The number of nuns dropped from 179,954 to 68,634.
For now, priests and nuns are being imported from countries, such as Vietnam and Nigeria, that have rising seminary populations and more conservative religious cultures. But the longer-term strategy requires deciphering the themes that will pull in young American Catholics. And churches' recruitment drives increasingly are focused on what Sledgeski talked about: how to be happy.
"Fishers of Men," a 20-minute video released this month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, presents priests as handsome and heroic, appearing in scenes of war and civil rights marches that are contrasted with the image of bored-looking people riding an escalator to meaningless jobs. The video will be shown at Catholic schools, churches and religious retreats around the country.
Recent local campaigns have played off the same idea, using posters, pamphlets and newspaper ads to show that priests are anything but lonely and isolated. One of them features the slogan "Life's Great in Black and White" and a photo of a group of young priests smiling and laughing. Other churches have picked up the catchphrase "Men in Black," using it on posters riffing off the Hollywood movie or as the name of a team of priests who travel to parishes to shoot hoops and talk about their work.
"A lot of young people think our lives are dreadful and boring. . . . We need to get a different image out to young people and parents," said the Rev. Jason Jalbert, associate director of vocations at the Catholic diocese in Manchester, N.H., and creator of the "Life's Great" campaign.
Attracting people to a religious vocation means knowing what the average American faces and offering an alternative, said the Rev. Brian G. Bashista, 41, a former architect who runs the Arlington Diocese's Vocations Office.