MILWAUKEE—In an emergency effort to boost the dwindling number of Roman Catholic priests in the United States, the Vatican contracted with a nationwide staffing firm last week to hire thousands of temporary employees to provide liturgical services and administer holy sacraments in its American churches.
"The reduced number of active diocesan clergy has forced us to take unprecedented measures to stop parishes from closing," Pope Benedict XVI explained in a decree issued Saturday by the Vatican. "That is why, for the first time in two millennia, we're allowing pretty much anyone who is willing to show up at 9 a.m. and work for slightly more than minimum wage to act as a Vessel of Christ."
According to a statement issued by Manpower Inc., most of the part-time priest applicants are 18- to 26-year-old males with no previous clerical experience. After watching a 35-minute video on the Rite of Ordination and receiving Holy Orders during a brief phone conference, new hires are issued two sets of ecclesiastical vestments and assigned to fill a pastoral vacancy.
Randy Nelson, a recently hired temp priest at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Miami, said he was initially nervous about celebrating mass in front of a large congregation, but soon got the hang of it.
"I was a little intimidated on my first day because I had no idea what I was supposed to do during communion," said Nelson, referring to the transubstantiation of the Holy Eucharist, a miracle he is expected to perform at each mass in order to transform earthly bread and wine into the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ. "But basically I just have to pour some watered-down cabernet into the gold cup, wave my arms around, say some stuff about God, and give each person in line one of those wafer things."
"It's really not all that different from a fast food gig," Nelson added. "Except maybe the uniforms here are a bit more humiliating."
Many temp priests told reporters they were only planning to work for the Church until they could land a more serious job, and that having the name of an archdiocese on their resumé was probably better than nothing.
"This is okay for now. They need somebody to do their grunt work and I need the money," said recent college graduate Justin Willingham, explaining that the vow of celibacy is "kind of a drag" but that he rarely has sex between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. anyway. "Plus, I make a ton in tips. The people here are super generous."
According to parishioners at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville, AR, their recently acquired temp is unfamiliar with many of his priestly duties and frequently takes the Lord's name in vain when he loses his place during Gospel readings.
"These things never happened when Father Tom [Whelan] was here," said Gloria Huston, 67. "In the 45 years that I've been a member of this parish I never once saw a priest sitting on the altar eating McDonald's."
Ben Rosenthal, 23, who is a newcomer to Catholicism, said the most interesting part of his job is administering the Sacrament of Penance, because while sitting in the confessional he hears "all kinds of shit you wouldn't believe."
"My friends were totally cracking up when I told them how Doug Merchant confessed to having impure thoughts about his next-door neighbor's daughter and was almost caught masturbating in the bushes outside her window," Rosenthal said. "I feel like I should probably call the cops on some of these people, but during orientation they told us we would get fired if we broke the Seal of Confession. So I just make them say a lot of Hail Marys."
While a majority of temps said they were happy just to have a job, some, like Greg Purcell, believe the priesthood is simply too demanding.
"There's no fucking way I'm working Sundays," Purcell said. "Not for what they pay."
Despite receiving numerous applications from qualified women with extensive knowledge of Church doctrine and advanced degrees in theology, the Vatican continues to oppose female ordination.