Issues behind the collar

How do you write a story about the declining number of young priests without asking about, well, you know what? And while we're at it, you know, the other big elephant in the living room, too?

This is especially interesting people cause the Catholic webmasters who are behind clearly understand that issues linked to sexuality -- the whole celibacy issue, broadly defined -- are on the minds of many young men who are considering the priesthood.

You can find that out by visiting the site put up by the Diocese of Richmond.

You can't find that out if you read the Richmond Times-Dispatch news story about the website and the problems that have led to its creation.

Now, I am perfectly willing to consider an argument that the celibacy issue is SOOOOOO obvious that it doesn't need much attention. And the subject of this story is an interesting one -- a variation on other stories about how religious groups are using social-networking sites to bring together people with similar interests and needs. Some of the basic questions are right there in the lede, including a nod toward you know what:

RICHMOND -- What's life like as a priest? How did loved ones react to news that a family member wanted to be one? What about celibacy?

Young men curious about the answers can find them on Facebook.


And YouTube.

Unscripted videos with priests and seminarians talking openly about their lives are the heart of an innovative online campaign by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond that is unique in the nation.

The man behind this is the Rev. Michael A. Renninger, or simply "Father Mike" online. The basic idea is that trying to decide whether or not to become a priest has become such a strange thing that young men no longer know who to turn to with their questions and support. In fact, it has been at least two or three decades since the earth moved and the sharp decline in numbers began.

Some of the old support systems and Catholic social realities that used to steer men into the priesthood are gone -- with falling birthrates being a key.

"When I was making my life-shaping decision 20 years ago, none of this was available," said Renninger, the diocesan vicar for vocations.

"I had to write for printed brochures and track people down. This is a new way for people to hear this input when they want and how they want," said Renninger, who is featured in a video leading a roundtable of seminarians in discussions of topics such as priestly life, family reactions and celibacy.

The diocese, like others nationwide, is dealing with an acute priest shortage. The diocese, with 220,000 parishioners, had 122 active priests last fall to serve 152 parishes, and 23 campus ministries, hospitals, prisons and other ministries.

The key is that the advertising pros who helped set this up needed to know the questions that loomed in the background during the decision-making process. Then Father Mike & Co. set out to answer those big questions.

That's the point: What are the big questions? What are the hurdles that the site needs to help young men clear, when considering this vocation? Those questions are at the heart of this story and it is clear that the webmasters -- from their focus groups -- started out with a list of questions that they needed to face. Which ones did they answer? Which ones were too hot to handle or too complex?

Believe me, I understand that all news stories can be improved with another 300 words or so and that, in this day and age, extra space is hard to come by. But don't you want to know more about the actual material in this fascinating website, as opposed to simply knowing that it exists?

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