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Celebrations mask critical shortage of Catholic priests
ROME (CNN) -- From around the world the footsoldiers of the Catholic church -- its priests -- gathered in St. Peter's Square in advance of the Mass with Pope John Paul II in celebration of the pontiff's 80th birthday.
But the scene belied what has become a major problem for the Vatican -- a critical shortage of clergy of almost every calling.
Just an hour's drive east of Rome it is monks who are lacking. A monastery founded by St. Benedict has closed its seminary and converted the building into a hotel.
Two dozen mostly older monks tend to the tourists and try to keep the place going.
This is a far cry from the 90 who once lived a life of contemplation there. While those remaining have not lost hope, there may not be an influx of new priests just around the corner.
Some church officials would prefer to channel young seminary students away from the monastic life and towards the more pressing clerical needs of Catholic congregations, where it is felt the shortage of priests is weakening the church.
Across Western Europe one village church after another has lost its priest, forcing the faithful to drive miles to find a Mass.
During the last 30 years when the number of Catholics has grown by 30 percent, the number of priests has declined 10 percent.
Chicago advertises to attract young to cloth
In Chicago the Archdiocese loses 20 or more priests a year, while only 10 new priests are ordained from local seminaries.
In desperation, diocesan officials turned to a TV and billboard advertising campaign, trying to attract young people to the cloth.
"We just thought we would try something big," said Father Wayne Watts, of the Chicago Archdiocese, "and try to create a climate where parents can maybe encourage their children a little more than they do."
Searching for solutions
At the Vatican the shortage has not gone unnoticed, but few agree with critics who believe there would be more priests if they were allowed to marry.
Celibacy is not the problem, according to church leaders, but a more secular society is.
"Many families are not real Christian families even in Catholic countries," said Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, of the Congregation for the Clergy.
"They do not practice the faith and therefore they are not the kind of families which produce priests."
Church officials, as they look into the multi-racial classrooms of the universities and seminaries, put their faith in some parts of the world that are producing more priests.
But it seems slim hope in a church that now averages less than one priest for every 2,000 faithful.
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