GOD PLAYED no favorites in the recent professional football playoffs, but he made his presence known. In the pauses between crack-back blocks and forearms thrown at Adam's apples, the Archdiocese of Baltimore offered a gentle television pitch for young men of faith to think about the priesthood.
"I am a priest, an ordinary man, called to do extraordinary work," a voice declares in the 30-second spots as a young man stands before a mirror and puts on his collar.
The ghost of Bing Crosby, in Going My Way, might have looked on approvingly at such an image. The problem is, that image - the man of the cloth equally comfortable with his God or with scruffy street kids, an image once so inspirational to generations of young Roman Catholics - has faded in the modern American popular culture.
"In Guadalajaro, Mexico, they have 1,200 seminarians," the Rev. Jerry Francik, vocation director for the Baltimore archdiocese, was saying yesterday. "In Baltimore, we have 36. And yet, in America, 36 is considered very good for a diocese today."
Last year, the archdiocese ordained six priests. Yesterday, Father Francik spoke from Venice, Fla., at a regional meeting of the church's vocation directors. They are spending most of their time there this week talking about the problems of recruiting young men for the priesthood - a problem not unlike recruiting young women to be nuns. Three decades ago, there were 185,000 nuns in America. Today, there are 80,000 - and their median age is 69.
Times change. After World War II, Father Francik was saying, "We had a huge increase of priests and sisters, all-time highs, record numbers of seminarians and novices. The war gave everybody a sense of heightened ideals. They wanted to help. But it was like a blip on a radar screen. Everybody thought it would continue, but it didn't."
The 1960s changed the moral tone of the country. Sex, drugs and music struck young people's sensibilities as never before, and Vietnam and the lies surrounding it made them question institutions and authority figures as never before. And thereafter followed the growing national culture of greed, and of cashing in on boom economic times.
"But now," Father Francik said, "this."
He meant the convulsions of Sept. 11.
"I think it's caused people to re-examine what's important in their lives," he said. "They're saying, 'If I die tomorrow, have I made the world a better place?' It's been a while since we've thought that way. And it's not just the Catholics. Jewish friends have talked about problems finding enough rabbis. Presbyterians and Unitarians, finding ministers.
"It's an attitude of service. It's what's valued in a culture. We don't pay teachers well. Until Sept. 11, we didn't look at police and firefighters as the heroes they are. People look at priests and don't feel the automatic respect they once did. They question authority now in ways they didn't years ago."
In the Catholic church, the vows of celibacy shadow everything. In places such as Boston, now shaken by charges of sexual impropriety, renewed debate exists about the isolation and loneliness imposed on the calling.
Across the country, church leaders have had to search for new ways to recruit young people to service - including television commercials. In Baltimore, the best place to find young men in large numbers, it was determined, was the football playoffs when the Ravens were still competing.
The archdiocese paid $17,500 for the ads, money funded by the Catholic Communications Fund, an annual collection at churches. They were produced in Pittsburgh, shown on television stations there, and then offered to the archdiocese here.
"The ads were meant to inspire and capture the imagination," said Ray Kempisty, director of communications for the Baltimore archdiocese.
Gauging response is a little tricky.
"When we do a priest vocations ad, we expect a very, very narrow response," he said. "We haven't had anybody call and say, 'Hey, I've been thinking about becoming a priest for a long time and the ad made me call.'
"But there's been a lot of talk about it, positive talk. A lot of people have thought about themselves, about sons or nephews or people around them. We've gotten that kind of feedback. They'll say, 'I saw this ad on television. You seem like the sort of person who might be interested. Have you thought about it?'
"So, we don't think in terms of direct recruiting. We think in terms of awakening a person to the vocation."
Even if the awakening has to be sandwiched between the crack-back blocks and the forearms aimed at Adam's apples. God took no sides in the football playoffs. But his message hovered over the huddles.