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Austria church mounts billboard search for priests

Tuesday - 7/24/2012, 3:18pm  ET

By GEORGE JAHN
Associated Press

VIENNA (AP) - European men take note. While unemployment is growing in much of the continent, a powerful international organization is now advertising vacancies in Austria for hundreds of white-collar jobs.

Requirements: a sense of religious mission and a commitment to celibacy. Benefits: a possible inside track to Heaven.

Seeking to repopulate its thinning clerical ranks, the Roman Catholic diocese of Austria's largest province launched a province-wide billboard campaign Tuesday meant to recruit priests.

Nuns are welcome as well. And the posters are also looking for part-time help _ laymen and women prepared to dedicate at least part of their life to Catholic religious and social service.

Such mass advertising for priests is rare anywhere _ and the decision of the Lower Austrian diocese to turn to it now reflects fears that the Catholic Church in this country many soon not be able to carry out its mission due to the lack of clergy.

Austria formally remains an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, with more than 64 percent of its people declaring themselves as church members. But many are Catholics in name only.

Like elsewhere in much of Europe, Masses are poorly populated in Vienna and other bigger cities and the number of declared Catholics is shrinking _ in Austria by 13 percent since 1960 _ as former believers fed up with church scandals and a perceived sense of the Vatican's disconnect with the world flee in droves.

At the same time, however, the number of priests has dropped even more sharply _ in Austria by 26 percent. In St. Poelten, Lower Austria's provincial capital, 244 priests are administering to the needs of believers in 423 parishes. Country-wide, the overwhelming majority of priests are over 60, and young replacements are scarce.

Launching the billboard campaign Tuesday, Klaus Kueng, St. Polten's bishop, described the lack of interest in the priesthood as "a huge problem." But Lukas Leitner, whose advertising agency developed the project, was optimistic that his strategy would bear fruit.

Eighty large billboards and 300 smaller electric placards are being mounted in the province of 1.6 million people. One depicts a priest, a deacon and a nun flanked by other church workers. Another shows laymen and women. Larger than life, their gaze is serene, their message simple: "The Mission. Those who give all receive even more." A link takes the curious to a home page that tells them who these people are and why they are committed to the church.

There have been more controversial campaigns. Recruitment billboards graphically depicting Christ's agony in the 1980s in Toronto drew outrage from some, while the Trinitarian Fathers advertised in Playboy and Rolling Stone in the 1970s.

But Leitner says the concept is deliberately low-key, reflecting Catholic clergy and laypeople "as the heroes of everyday life _ which they truly are, with so many different traits and skills."

"From there," he says, "we developed the concept to simply stage people of the church _ priests and laymen _ like in a blockbuster in a movie theater."

Kueng also suggests people will relate to the simplicity of the message, and to the men and women delivering it.

"The placards show real people ... who are joyfully working for the church and are ready to show it by putting their faces to the camera."

___

Associated Press video reporter Philipp Jenne contributed.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)