Young footie players asked to take up the cross
More than 5,000 posters are being put up in schools and churches across the country asking youngsters to consider a career in the Church. Posters will feature two images of the same young boy - one holding a football and the other dressed as a priest, praying.
Father Paul Embery, the Church's vocation's director, said: "Football plays a major part in many young men's lives. The 'beautiful game' is not just a job, it becomes a whole way of life. It takes many years of training, and perseverance to get to a professional standard; the support of your team is invaluable, and it's not just about a one-off public appearance at the weekend.
"We want young men to see that some of the motivating factors for footballers are just as applicable to the Catholic priesthood, and that being a priest is a rewarding and satisfying vocation - and a life-long one too."
In 2005, just 31 men in England and Wales started training for the Catholic priesthood, only slightly up on 27 in 2004.
The new recruitment posters - featuring the slogan "what's your goal?" - will go up in Catholic primaries and secondaries across the UK. An information pack will also be sent out to schools, emphasising the similarities between football and the priesthood, including the late Pope John Paul II's early life as a goalkeeper and a story about how students from the Church's training college in Valladolid, Spain, beat Real Madrid 6-2 in a football match 99 years ago.
However, Church leaders may find it hard to get pupils to take the link seriously. A recent survey by the Professional Footballers' Association showed Premiership footballers now earn an average pound;676,000-a-year.
Many priests get paid less than pound;15,000.
Footballers also attract the eye of some of the world's most beautiful women. Jamie Redknapp, the former Liverpool midfielder, is married to pop star Louise, and Ashley Cole, the Arsenal left-back, is dating Cheryl Tweedie, the Girls Aloud singer. Priests, on the other hand, are bound by vows of chastity.
Andrew Copson, education officer for the British Humanist Association, said the Church, as an employer, had every right to target schools in a recruitment campaign, but added: "It strikes me as silly and a bit desperate for the church to be drawing parallels between being a priest and being an international footballer."
It is not the first time churches have tried to tap into popular culture to find recruits.
Last year the Manchester diocese of the Church of England sent schools a promotional film featuring clips from The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted and featuring the Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons in an attempt to rid the clergy of its stuffy image.
Last word 32 www.ukpriest.org