A CATHOLIC Church strategy to overcome a serious shortage of priests and boost its dwindling ranks was launched last night by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
Speaking in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral, he reminded Irish Catholics that being a Christian is "not a spectator sport" and said bishops needed "to recall to all that you cannot be simply a passive Christian".
Blessing a specially commissioned 'Year of Vocation' candle, the Archbishop said that Catholics should not be "sitting on the sidelines always or watching from the grandstand when the occasion arises."
The year-long campaign in all 26 dioceses comes as the Irish Church is confronted with a manpower crisis of ageing clergy and few recruits into the ministry that could reached catastrophic proportions within two decades.
Recently published figures showed that 160 priests died last year, while only nine men were ordained.
In 2007, 228 nuns died but only two new recruits took final vows for service in religious life.
While some dioceses report slightly increased numbers of students for the priesthood, the Church needs to tackle its recruitment crisis.
If not, the number of priests could drop by one third from its current level of 4,755 to just over 1,500 over the next 20 years.
The campaign, which ends in May 2009, aims to raise an awareness of the specific vocations of marriage, the religious life, the single life and priesthood.
As well as encouraging men and women to join the ranks of clergy and religious, a main feature of the twin-track approach is to highlight greater participation by ordinary Catholics.
In his address, Archbishop Martin said that being a Catholic meant answering the call of Christ and changing our way of living, he added.
"Today in a special way, we need priests, good priests. We need them not to fill gaps caused by the death of older priests. We need priests who can be beacons in our society."
Priesthood, he said, was never just a job or a career or even a private honour, but was a vocation that identified the priest with Jesus.
"The world needs vocations not determined by a detailed job description, as in business, but in the ability to place one's life, with all its inadequacies truly at the service of Jesus."
Present at the launch were Bishop Donal McKeown, chairman of the Bishops' Commission for Vocations, Fr Paddy Rushe, national director for vocations, representatives from dioceses and religious orders, as well as seminarians from St Patrick's College, Maynooth and members of lay organisations.
The Bishop of Ferns, Denis Brennan, appealed to those who felt a calling to the priesthood or religious life to listen to God's prompting and undertake a particular role in the Church.