It's not just the bitter French winters that make Etienne Ruhatijuli homesick for his native Rwanda. Nearly four years after arriving in the eastern French town of Dijon as the Catholic priest at the church of Sacré Coeur-Saint Jean Bosco, he says his most wistful moments come during Sunday Mass, when he looks out from the altar and sees only a scattering of gray-haired worshippers in the pews. "At home the churches are packed it's dynamic, everyone sings and chants all the time," he says. "Here the churches are empty. It feels dead."
These days, breathing life into France's dominant religion has become an urgent problem for the country's clergy, who fear they are becoming an endangered species. Last year, around 90 priests are believed to have been ordained in France, a sharp drop from even a decade ago, when there were 112. Alarmed, the Bishops Conference of France's National Vocations Services did what any struggling enterprise might in a tough market: it launched an advertising campaign. The public-relations blitz targeted young men about to graduate from high school or university, many of whom face bleak job opportunities. During April and May, the church distributed 70,000 postcards to bars, cinemas and restaurants across France, featuring fashionable young men wearing lapel pins that read (in English, the ultimate sign of hipness in France), "Jesus is my boss." It also launched a Facebook page called "Why not me?" suggesting that the priesthood was a job for ordinary people, despite its extraordinary requirements that applicants be men who are prepared to forego sex and marriage. "People think of priests as being outside society," says advertising executive Frédéric Fonfroide de Lafon, who created the campaign. "My biggest challenge was conveying the message that the church is modern and for everyone."
Even if the ads succeed in boosting recruits, the lengthy training period it takes seven years of study to become a priest like Ruhatijuli means France will be critically short of priests for years to come. So dioceses have taken to importing them. A century after thousands of French priests were dispatched as missionaries across Africa, there is now a steady migration in the reverse direction. Of the 1,316 foreign priests in France, more than 650 come from Africa, many from desperately poor countries such as Togo, Madagascar and Burkina Faso, whose churches either have enough priests or cannot afford to pay them all. Scores of priests have come over from Korea, Vietnam and India too.
And yet, French churches still need more clergy. The emptying out of rural France, as families move to Paris and other cities for work, has worsened the problem, stripping communities of potential young priests. Around the famed vineyards of Burgundy's Côte d'Or region, countless Gothic churches are used only as tourist sites these days because there are too few priests. There are also too few people attending services. Of the 42 million or so French Catholics, only 2 million regularly go to church, according to the Bishops' Conference of France. "Can you imagine? I am now the priest for 19 parishes," says Joseph Kuka, a priest from the Republic of the Congo who is based in the tiny village of Brazey-en-Plaine, near Dijon. "I get to each parish every two or three months."
But it will take more than an influx of foreigners to boost France's priest population. Ruhatijuli in Dijon admits that the church's celibacy rule makes recruiting a daunting task. "The youth want total independence, total freedom," he says. "They don't want to hear about things that are forbidden." And while no French priest has been caught up in the abuse charges that have rocked the Catholic Church, both Ruhatijuli and Kuka say the scandal has not helped matters. Both priests are distributing brochures in their churches, encouraging parishioners to convince relatives to become priests. Not everyone is getting into the spirit of things, however. In May, someone launched another "Why not me?" campaign on Facebook. But in this one, the young man's lapel pin reads, "Satan is my boss."