New York, Oct. 14 - American bishops, aiming to rebuild the dwindling ranks of Roman Catholic priests, started a new campaign Friday encouraging clergy to invite young men into the priesthood.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the "Fishers of Men" program is a response to research that found nearly 80 percent of seminarians ordained in 2003 had been asked by a priest to consider the vocation. In another survey, less than one-third of Catholic clergy said they had specifically suggested that young men enroll in seminary.

As part of the campaign, priests in each diocese will be interviewed about what they find most rewarding in their ministries, then will meet to discuss their responses and develop a strategy to convey those thoughts to promising priest-candidates. The goal is to renew priests' appreciation of their own work and inspire them to reach out to others, the bishops said.

The program launch comes at a difficult time in the church, as the clergy sex abuse crisis has demoralized many priests and Catholics await a Vatican document on whether gays should be ordained. A Vatican-directed inspection of all U.S. seminaries is under way in response to the abuse scandal that began in 2002. Among the questions evaluators will ask is whether there is "evidence of homosexuality" in the schools.

Bishop Blase Cupich, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Vocations, said church leaders are aware of these challenges, but believe the program can still be effective. "Fishers of Men" has already been used successfully in five dioceses, he said.

"It will reinvigorate the priests themselves, so they have a chance to reflect on their own vocation and what it means," said Cupich, of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Since 1965, the number of annual ordinations has dropped by more than half to 454 this year.

The number of American priests has decreased in the same period from 58,632 to 42,528.

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