They've tried prayer and persuasion. They've printed glossy brochures and posters. They've even laced up sneakers and gone on a basketball road show to Catholic parishes - anything to recruit new priests.
And now, they're going to the tape.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore began airing a 30-second television advertisement yesterday in the hopes of recruiting men who would make good priests.
The ad, which will air for the next two weeks on WJZ-TV, is part of a multipronged effort to reverse declining seminary enrollment that is creating a shortage of priests, not just in Baltimore but in practically every diocese in the country.
Baltimore's TV ad was produced by the Rev. David J. Bonnar of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The management of WJZ-TV saw it at the Pittsburgh affiliate and suggested that the Baltimore archdiocese use it.
The ad was written by Bonnar and features him performing various priestly tasks.
"I open doors ... turn on lights ... build bridges ... pave roads ... meet people ... bring good news ... and save lives," the voice-over says as Bonnar reads to children, celebrates a marriage, preaches and talks to teen-agers.
"I am a priest," it concludes, "an ordinary man called to do extraordinary work."
This is the first time Baltimore has gone to the airwaves to attract men to the seminary. But it is not alone. Besides Pittsburgh, it joins a number of dioceses that are using creative efforts to bolster the priesthood.
The Diocese of Providence, R.I., ran ads on MTV, ESPN and Comedy Central, cable stations market research indicated young men were watching, featuring a ringing telephone with the voice-over, "Is Christ calling you to the priesthood?" In Milwaukee, the archdiocese used billboards to send messages like "Work with the World's Greatest Boss," "Enjoy the Ultimate Benefits Package" and "Wanted: Doctor of Souls."
Is this any way to entice men to consider the priesthood?
"It's a way, amidst a number of ways," said the Rev. James M. Barker, Baltimore's director of vocations. "We live in a culture of mass media. Any way we can get the message out there that priesthood is fulfilling and worthwhile calling, we want to try."
But, it's not a magic bullet. "We would say, without a doubt, God calls somebody to be a priest, not a commercial," said the Rev. Marcel L. Taillon, who supervises the recruitment effort in Providence, where vocations have doubled since they began their annual media campaign three years ago. "The commercial only tells people being called by God where to call. It also reminds Catholics at large that God needs priests for his church."
Baltimore uses several other methods to get that message out, including discernment retreats, a dinner at the residence of the head of the Baltimore archdiocese, Cardinal William H. Keeler, and the seminarian basketball team, the Men in Black, which travels to parishes to shoot hoops and share the stories of their vocations.
The trouble is, there are fewer such stories to tell these days. The number of priests has been steadily declining for the past three decades, from 58,632 in 1965 to 45,699 this year, as the Catholic population in the country has increased during the same period from 45 million to about 60 million, according to the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Even more troubling is the fact that the average age of U.S. priests is roughly 60, and seminary enrollment has dropped from 8,325 in 1965 to 3,474 this year.
"We ordained five this past year [in Baltimore], we will ordain five this coming year, and we have 33 men in the seminary," Barker said. "We could use double that to meet the needs of the parishes."
Those needs are leading to the creative recruiting efforts.
In Pittsburgh, as did Providence, Bonnar used market research to target his audience - men ages 16 to 45. And what were they watching? Sports, which means football, which means NCAA and the Steelers.
"The church has always gone where the people are," Bonnar said. "Our research leads us to conclude people are very much centered on television, and to be more specific, sports television."
Will it work? Only God knows.
"This is where we differ from the world of TV," Bonnar said. "Our ministry is not a ministry of instant results. It is a sowing type of ministry, and the harvest comes over time. "It'll be years before we can determine, was this a success."