By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006; B01
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.
"We are the most medicated generation. Everyone is searching for peace and happiness and love in all the wrong places. And most seminarians have experienced that world," he said.
Far from being daunted by the acute shortage of priests and nuns, young people who sense they may be "hearing the call" of religious life see it as further inspiration, saying it reflects the culture of self-centeredness and materialism they hope to change.
Bryan Kuzma, 18, is listening for the call these days -- whether he is in business class at Anne Arundel Community College or busing tables at an upscale seafood restaurant at night. The skinny graduate of Anne Arundel's South River High School says he always felt "a sensation of peace" at church, "like nothing can happen to me, like I'm in God's graces."
He was that way through high school, where he felt alone amid what he called the superficial "drama" of teenage life and kept to himself as his grades suffered. He never spoke about his faith.
The first time he heard a religious vocations talk a couple years ago, he thought, "No way." But the idea began to take root last year at the Catholic Underground, a popular retreat in New York that was hosted by a community of gray-robed friars and included poetry readings and musicians playing Christian funk and reggae. "They were so happy," he said of the friars.
Although his family is "hard-core into faith" and his friends are understanding, Kuzma said, he sometimes worries about what they would think if he became a priest. He also wonders whether he has the spiritual fortitude. He has dated and isn't sure whether celibacy is for him, even though he supports the rule because it allows someone to "commit fully" to the church .
Church vocations officials use the word "discernment" to describe the process people go through in trying to tell whether God is calling them to veer away from the mainstream, saying it is as inexplicable as falling in love. But they also compare it to a dimmer switch cranking up a light or logs being stacked on a growing fire, saying it can take years, or even
decades, before a candidate is ready to make the decision.
Peter Stamm has been interested in joining the clergy since third grade, when he became an altar boy at Our Lady of Victory, a church near his subdivision of Spring Valley in Northwest Washington.
"I don't know why I wanted to do it. I just remember being deeply attracted to the role the priest had," said Stamm, 18, who is studying philosophy at Boston College.
By ninth grade, the call was too loud to ignore, drowning out the intensifying sex abuse scandals that prompted his classmates at the parochial St. Anselm's School to be unkind.
"People made their voices very well known that I was a pedophile, a homosexual, like in the halls and stuff," he said with no inflection. "Luckily, I was at a good place in my prayer life. I accepted all the persecution I got and prayed for people doing it."
Home during his spring break this month, Stamm talked excitedly in his family's elegantly appointed living room about his upcoming weekend with a group of friars in Emmitsburg, in Frederick County, who own nothing and beg for food.
"I think when people see this radical lifestyle they are drawn to it. It's very liberating to not be attached to the unnecessary," he said.
Stamm considered going right into the seminary after high school. But he decided he should live for a while in a more secular, diverse environment -- to see whether he was sure he wanted to become a priest and to have a broader experience so he could "serve people better" if he did take that step later. He says it is likely he will enter the seminary after college.
His decision to delay attending seminary is not uncommon. Dozens of high school seminaries have closed as church officials have begun to believe that people can commit more seriously when they are older. According to academics, the average American priest is ordained in his late thirties, and the age of women entering religious orders is rising as well, to the early thirties.
Opposition from parents is the biggest challenge the church faces in the vocations field, officials say.
Bob Sledgeski is Catholic and was the one who pushed his daughter to start attending the more charismatic services at Our Lady of the Fields. Now, they have teenager-parent arguments about whether her grades are suffering because she is spending so many nights at church. He appreciates the role priests and nuns play and is ready to accept God's will but wonders whether his daughter could satisfy her urge to serve God in some other way, such as with the Peace Corps.
Chelsea Sledgeski is trying to sort it out. Until about a year ago, she thought even the idea of God was "weird -- how someone could dedicate their whole life to something they couldn't even prove."
But then she started going to church, to the pizza nights, the musical services and the skits about Lent that play off the show "The O.C." One night in the church's lower hall, priests and nuns came to talk to the teens.
"And I remember them talking about how they made these sacrifices, and they couldn't get married and took vows of poverty," she said. "I remember them just being very happy about it, and I thought that was kind of strange. How could you be very happy about not owning anything? But now I'm starting to get it."