France's Catholic Church seeks to recruit young priests and improve scandal-tainted image
PARIS – PARIS (AP) — As he sat in Church last Sunday afternoon, Guillaume Humblot found himself troubled by the declining number of Catholic priests in France, and asked himself if he was ready to join the cloth.
"There are almost none left," the 31-year-old Humblot said.
On Facebook, Humblot discovered a forum dedicated to people who, like him, are considering the priesthood. The page was part of a campaign, launched by the Catholic Church this month, to attract young people to the priesthood following decades of dwindling ordainments — and amid waves of sexual abuse allegations that have darkened the reputation of the Catholic priest.
There are around 24,000 priests in France today, down from 42,000 in 1975. The number of Catholics entering the diocese has declined as well, from 116 ordainments in 1999 to 89 in 2009.
"There is a crisis in vocation," said French priest and family therapist Stephane Joulain. "We don't have sufficient numbers to renew the number of priests available for ministry today."
"Pourquoi Pas Moi?" or "Why Not Me?" is the slogan for the recruitment campaign — which today may prove a tough question for the Church to answer.
The €250,000 campaign was launched nationwide on April 20 and will last through May 5. Seventy-thousand postcards depicting a Catholic priest's outfit with a button reading "Jesus is my Boss," pinned to the lapel and the slogan "Why not?" written underneath will be distributed to 600 points throughout France, including restaurants, bars and movie theaters. A Facebook page created April 21 garnered over 1,200 fans within one week.
From Germany to the United States to Brazil, hundreds of victims have come forward in recent months to say they were abused by Catholic priests, plunging the church into a worldwide crisis that has reached Pope Benedict XVI. Many churchgoers say Vatican leadership has not reacted strongly enough.
French priests have not escaped the sexual abuse allegations, although complaints in France are less numerous than in countries such as Ireland, the United States and Germany.
"We must avoid stigmatizing priests," said Eric Poinsot, one of the priests coordinating the campaign. "All priests are not pedophiles and we don't want to be identified that way. We would rather work to present the priest as ... someone who believes in happiness, who searches to communicate."
While 64 percent of the French population, or 41.6 million of the country's 65 million inhabitants, identifies itself as Catholic, only a little more than 2 million attend church each week, said Jacques Carton, a representative from the Bishops Conference in France.
The current advertising campaign hopes to revitalize the Church's image in French society — but its main goal is to encourage young men to consider the priesthood.
"The priest is a disappearing presence in French society today," said Frederic Fonfroide de Lafon, director of the communications company Bayard Service, which the Church hired to run its campaign. "Often people think of him as a man a bit apart. I wanted to show that he is a man that is a part of society."
But young people like Humblot are still torn.
"I'm asking myself the question," he said. "It's a calling that interests me, but today I am unable to tell you if I am ready to go down that path."
Humblot, who enjoys karate and going to movies and is from the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, is not sure if he is ready to completely change his lifestyle. Most difficult for him to accept is the Catholic priest's commitment to celibacy.
"I understand celibacy," Humblot said. "It's not something I question, even if it's a difficult choice."
The vow of celibacy is not the only difficult sell the Catholic Church faces in its efforts to attract young priests.
"Without a doubt, celibacy is an obstacle for the young today because it's a radical commitment," Poinsot said. "It's also difficult for a young person to envision being a priest forever, especially in a society where people have many careers during their lifetime. The financial question is also difficult. The French priest does not make a lot of money."
Poinsot said that since the campaign launched last week, he's been receiving more than 100 emails a day in response, nearly all positive.
The number of Catholic priests in Europe and the United States was in decline well before the recent sex abuse scandals. Ordainments are increasing globally, however, in large part thanks to Asia and Africa. Churches around Europe have increasingly brought in young priests from developing countries.
It's common to see an Italian congregation straining to understand the Sunday sermon because it's delivered in heavily accented Italian by young clerics from Brazil, Mozambique, the Philippines and other countries where seminaries still represent a way to get an advanced education and earn a respectable living. The priest who delivered Mass Sunday at Humblot's church in Boulogne-Billancourt was African.
European priests are also aging. The average age of an Italian priest in 2003 was 60, with one of every eight priests 80 years or over, according to a study by a lay Italian think tank, the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, for the Italian bishops conference, found.
While he knows the Catholic church wants him, Humblot, an editorial assistant, said he will take his time to make sure he's ready for such a lifestyle change.
"I already have a professional life," he said. "I'm already settled in my life. I have hobbies, I like to see my friends. It's not easy to completely change your life like this."
Associated Press writer Frances d'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.