Roadside Revelation? Toronto Recruits Priests on the Highways and the Byways

updated 03/07/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1983 01:00AM

There is simply no escaping Him. That is, if you live in the Toronto area and get about by car. Rising up amid the highway ads for tobacco and booze and dream-mobiles, He is unmistakably the Son of God, and His challenge is piercingly direct: DARE TO BE A PRIEST LIKE ME. Phone 977-1100.

Desperate times require drastic measures. The 38 black-and-white billboards spotted around Toronto today constitute a near-last-ditch effort by the local archdiocese to inject new blood into an aging and depleted Roman Catholic clergy. "We are in a genuine crisis," says the Rev. Sean O'Sullivan, 31, the energetic priest who fathered the controversial billboard campaign. Should the present dismal trend continue, within five years the priest-to-parishioner ratio in the Toronto Archdiocese would be one to 4,000—among the worst in urban North America. Prior to his assuming the job of restocking the clergy, says Father O'Sullivan, "the recruitment of priests had become a quiet front. You never heard much about it."

Not anymore. The response to the billboard blitz has been clamorous, and divided. Some Catholics have dialed 977-1100 to complain about the aesthetics of the billboard as well as to object to the very idea of drumming for priests. To women who say that the church wouldn't have a shortage if they could become priests, O'Sullivan explains, "I sympathize with their frustration, but I'm in sales, not management." On the plus side, the dramatic gambit seems to be working: Of the 600 callers to date, 85 have indicated a serious interest in the priesthood. O'Sullivan, who's already interviewed 35 candidates, says he's been "overwhelmed by the response. There are priestly vocations out there. But we were not, until now, lighting the spark."

Interestingly, O'Sullivan's own enthusiasm for the priesthood took fire just six years ago, when he moved to Rome to study theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Prior to that time he had been a Member of Parliament. In fact, elected at age 20 in 1972 as a protégé of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, he'd been the youngest MP in Canadian history. "Everybody assumed I was going to make a lifetime career out of politics," he recalls. "I had the usual ambitions: Move up the ladder, and when the people, in their wisdom, asked me to be Prime Minister, I would serve. But God reaches us in different ways. He gave me everything I thought I wanted. I had lots of money and ego reinforcement and friends. I had a sense I was doing some good things. But I felt a lack of peace. I felt that something was missing in my life."

After receiving his theology degree, O'Sullivan was ordained in 1981 and served first as associate pastor in a suburban Toronto parish. He was appointed archdiocesan director of vocations last September precisely because he'd reveled in "the high life" and therefore knew what it meant to give it up. He also—no small consideration—knew his way around the World of Getting and Spending. Credit for the campaign slogan ("Dare to Be a Priest Like Me") rightly belongs to the Rev. Joseph Lupo, an old friend and Trinitarian priest from Pikesville, Md., to whom O'Sullivan turned for his media experience. The $20,000 to rent the 38 billboards for 11 weeks was put up by the Toronto Knights of Columbus. Promotional expertise, however, some $30,000 worth, was contributed gratis by Toronto-based consultants Martin Keen and Marc Giacomelli. Not incidentally, Giacomelli used to swathe O'Sullivan in slogans and glamour during his political campaigns.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ont., one of seven children "in a staunch Roman Catholic family," Father O'Sullivan lives these days in St. Augustine's Seminary, not far from metropolitan Toronto. He makes $600 a month and drives a blue Chevy—"like every other priest." He claims that nowadays neither politics nor the opposite sex holds any fascination for him, although he admits he used to be "seriously involved with some women." Clearly buoyed up by his recruitment campaign, he says his only "regret" about relinquishing his former life "is that there was good I could have done as an MP. And," he adds, picking up the ringing phone, "I used to have all those people on staff to take my calls and messages."

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