Thursday, August 11, 2005

An edgy poster showing a somber Catholic priest in full black cassock and sunglasses posed like “The Matrix” star Keanu Reeves is proving so popular that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has snapped up 5,000 of them.

They’ll be distributed starting Monday to the thousands of young people attending World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, not only as guests of Pope Benedict XVI, but as targets for some gentle recruiting.

The poster’s creator, the Rev. Jonathan Meyer, 28, associate director of youth ministries for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, says pop culture is the key to attracting young men to an occupation that has gotten bad press.

“If we can get high-school youth to hang a picture of a priest in their room, that’s huge in helping young men to answer the call to the priesthood,” the cleric said. “Anyone who is a ‘Matrix’ guru looks at the picture and automatically gets it.”

Crucifix in hand, Father Meyer posed for the poster, rated R for “restricted to those radically in love with Jesus Christ.” Running time is “all eternity,” and its title reads, “The Catholic priesthood: The answer is out there … and it’s calling you.”

Dioceses across the country are borrowing from Tinseltown to compare the austerities of the priesthood to the heroes of “Lord of the Rings,” “Gladiator,” “Men in Black,” “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars.”

“They are appealing to young men’s desire to be a warrior for the good,” said the Rev. Bill Parent, executive director for Catholic identity and mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. “It’s a romantic idea of being the one who combats evil.”

Young men, Father Meyer says, are attracted by the heroic qualities of Neo, the “Matrix” character who battles an evil empire run by artificial-intelligence machines.

“Times are a little different now, and more and more we’re realizing the presence of evil,” the priest says. “We’re talking about sin, we’re talking about evil, we’re talking about the powers of darkness.

“All these films are talking about sin and evil, too. What we’re doing is taking a pop icon and using it for the good of the church.”

The priest-as-hero motif is a tough sell in a culture steeped since 2002 in news about sexually abusive priests plus the vocation’s long hours and lifelong celibacy. Still, more young men are applying for this most difficult of jobs.

The Rev. Edward Burns, executive director of the USCCB’s secretariat for vocations and priestly formation, said 544 men were ordained by U.S. dioceses in 2004, compared with 449 men ordained in 2003.

The Archdiocese of Washington has 53 men in seminary this fall for the priesthood, double the number enrolled in 1998.

“Ironically, the last entering class of 15 men I helped bring in, which started in the fall of 2002, was our largest in 20 years,” Father Parent said, “and that was at the height of the scandal.”

The men were inspired, he added, by the elevation of celibate heroes and the embrace of sacrifice in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” all released in 2001 or 2002.

“The idea that a celibate priesthood could be heroic is alien to our culture, but the Jedi knights were celibate,” he said. “Most seminarians loved that first ‘Spider-Man’ movie; the idea he had to make a sacrifice, could not have a relationship with M.J., his girlfriend, because it would put her in danger.

“At the very height of the scandals, when this whole idea of the priest as sexual predator was at its highest, I found it curious that celibacy was a theme in the two biggest summer movies,” he said. “There’s something in our culture that is looking for heroes, for people wanting to make real personal sacrifices for the benefit of other people.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which had a “Men in Black” recruiting poster featuring dark-clad, rosary-and-prayer-book-toting priests, has 31 men studying this year.

“Anyone stepping forward to be a priest or nun has to be pretty courageous,” says the Rev. Gerard Francik, the vocations director. “It doesn’t have the esteem it once did. … Young people feel they are countercultural to do this.

“Before, if you said you were going to be a priest or sister, Catholics thought it was awesome, and they even admired it. Today, it’s generally opposition young people face.”

Twenty-five men from the Diocese of Arlington are studying for the priesthood, thanks to a system of “discernment groups” instituted three years ago.

“This generation does everything in groups,” said the Rev. Brian Bashista, 42, a former architect who is now Arlington’s vocations director. “Group support gives people a vocation-friendly culture. These are friends who say, ‘You’re not so crazy.’ ”

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