VATICAN CITY, JAN. 26, 2004 ( De-Christianization is the greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church in France, and the proper response demands that the crisis in priestly vocations be become, says John Paul II.

The Pope made this point Saturday when he received in audience a group of bishops from the ecclesiastical provinces of Montpellier and Toulouse, who were ending their five-yearly visit to the Vatican.

"Growing de-Christianization is the greatest challenge of the moment and, I exhort you to address it, mobilizing all the priests of your dioceses," the Holy Father said.

Commenting on the reports presented to him in separate meetings with the bishops, the Pope said the situation faced by priests in France is "particularly alarming."

In 1985, there were 28,175 diocesan priests in France. By 2001 their number decreased to 18,528. In several French dioceses, the average age of priests is over 60.

"At times you can be demoralized given the situation and prospects, but I wish to invite you to have hope and an ever more determined commitment in favor of the priesthood," the Holy Father said.

"Although one must be realistic in face of the difficulties, one must not yield to discouragement or be satisfied with looking at the statistics and the drop in the number of priests for which, moreover, we cannot feel totally responsible," he stressed.

According to John Paul II, the "crisis the Church is going through, is due in large part to the repercussion, within the ecclesial community itself and in the life of its members, of social mutations, new ways of behavior, the loss of moral and religious values, and a widespread attitude of consumerism."

He thus suggested that "the priestly life be constantly presented to youth as a generous commitment and a source of happiness, renewing and reaffirming the pastoral endeavor of vocations."

"What can keep youth away, frequently attracted by an easy and superficial life, is above all the image of the priest of modern society with an increasingly less clear identity, and with an ever heavier burden," the Pope added.

"How can youths feel attracted to a way of life if they do not understand its grandeur and beauty and if priests themselves do not take care to express their enthusiasm for the mission of the Church?" he continued.

"The priest finds his joy and balance in his relation with Christ and in his mystery," the Holy Father said. "He is the shepherd of the flock who leads the people of God, who celebrates the sacraments, who teaches and proclaims the Gospel, offering at the same time spiritual paternity as he supports the faithful."

"In doing so, he is at the same time a witness and an apostle who, through the different activities of his ministry, manifests his love for Christ, for the Church and for men," the Pope said.

In a word about priests, he added: "May they never forget that with their actions and ministry they make the tenderness of God present, and communicate to people the grace that they need!"