Japanese manga cartoons have become a multi-billion pound global market, commonly associated with martial arts warriors rather than with nuns and monks. But the Catholic Church in England and Wales is launching its own comic strip this week to attract teenagers into the priesthood.

It is using the comic book art form in an advertising campaign that aims to combat the dramatic decline in the number of applicants for ordination, and the resulting dearth of young priests.

The Church hopes that its manga comic, with pictures of nuns and monks playing pool and surfing the internet, will help to improve the image of the vocation, which leaders believe is seen as "monotonous and boring".


The minimum age to enter a seminary is 18, but children as young as 10 are being targeted by the recruitment drive, which is encouraging them to consider life as a parish priest or in a religious order.

About 5,000 primary and secondary schools have been sent posters promoting a website that features a manga comic strip based on five young Catholic characters.

Fr Paul Embery, the Church's Director of Vocations, admitted that persuading teenagers to commit to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience was not an easy sell, but said that the Church was desperate to reach younger candidates for ordination.

"We realise that this kind of commitment is counter-cultural. It requires great sacrifice, and a lot of people see it as monotonous and boring, but actually it is an extremely fulfilling job," he said.

"Manga cartoon characters are popular with young people from the age of 10 up to mid-20s and we thought that it would be a way to help them use their imagination when thinking about the priesthood."

Religious orders and seminaries are struggling to survive because of the fall in numbers. Fewer than half as many people joined colleges last year compared with 1991. The decline over the past 15 years is particularly marked among the younger generation, with under-30s making up more than two thirds of entrants in 1991, but only half last year.

In the typical Catholic diocese, there are four times as many priests aged over 70 as there are under 30, who make up only 7 per cent. The average age of clerics has risen from 57 in 1996 to 61.5 today.

The young may be put off by the six years of training before they can enter the priesthood, or by the frugal stipend, which ranges from £3,500 to £10,000.

Yet the Catholic bishops, who meet at their annual conference this week, will be encouraged that there has been a rise in the number of entrants to seminaries in the past few years, from 28 in 2003 to 44 last year.

"After Pope John Paul II died we saw an increase of interest not only in the priesthood, but in Catholic life in general," said Fr Embery. "The challenge for the Church is to recognise this and build on it."