Pope Francis Finds Traction Amongst Youth

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Julia Brekka
Contributing Writer

The Roman Catholic Church holds influence in many families and homes all over the world, however, in today’s ever changing society new ideas and concepts are constantly being made and the church is often viewed as a source of rulemaking and strict guidelines. Nonetheless, since 2013, the Church has experienced a change of image with the introduction of Pope Francis, whose actions have attracted more positive interest.    

According to an October 2015 Pew Research Center Survey, “Twenty-eight percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they had a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis.” The study found the shift was more pronounced among liberal responders with “39 percent saying they have a more positive view of the Church, with conservatives at 22 percent.”

Clare Bierman grew up with a mother who was active in advocating for gay priests and the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood. Pope Francis has caught Bierman’s attention because of his encyclical on climate change that emphasizes the need for worldly awareness and action through connecting science and religion.

In the pope’s encyclical, “Laudato Si [translation: praised be] on the care of our common home,” Pope Francis wrote. “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plants and animal species which we will never know, which our climate will never see, because they have been lost forever.”

Bierman, who is majoring in environmental studies at USF, appreciated the light the pope cast on this issue. “There are people who are displaced by climate change and rising sea levels. Now, the pope is saying that it is the Church’s responsibility to help these poor people, it is our responsibility to fix climate change,” said Bierman who continued “I don’t think the line between morality and science has been crossed in so direct a way.”

Pope Francis appears as an innovator of the Catholic faith. His bold statements about the inclusion of everyone runs contrary to statements of many popes of the past. However, his environmental sustainability and emphasis on serving the poor and outcast suggests that Pope Francis is shifting the Church’s focus in a more liberal and open direction that more young people find attractive.

USF Professor Mark Miller is the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute. Miller said he believes Pope Francis’ focal point is love. Miller said he has heard students who are concerned there is a social pressure to be angry or sad, like fashion models who pout as if they are angry or depressed. Miller said Pope Francis’ advice to youth to “have the courage to be happy” is a way of counteract this notion of the young generation.

A notable difference between the Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict is their messages to the youth. In his statement for the 30th World Youth Day, Pope Francis said, “Have the courage to be happy.” The pope also said that the search for happiness is shared by people of all times and all ages.

Pope Benedict’s message for World Youth Day in 2008 focused around the Bible quote of Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witness.” The message in this quote focused on young people’s need to discover the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict emphasized the need to “live according to the Gospel and proclaim it boldly.” He finished by calling the young people to action and saying that those around them expect much from them.

The inclusion that Pope Francis has provided for young peoples is a key element as to why more young people may be more open to the Church. Don Crean, associate director for resident ministry at USF, mentioned something that Pope Francis said when addressing a crowd during his visit to the United States last fall. Pope Francis said, “If you pray, please pray for me, and if you don’t pray, please send me good thoughts.” Crean said this resonated with him because it welcomed all people, Catholic or not. However, Crean emphasized that it is not that the Church’s teachings that have changed, even if it is the image of the Church that has been somewhat improved with the actions of Pope Francis.

In her work with University Ministry, Emily Czarnik-Neimeyer has met students of all different backgrounds and religions. A Lutheran, Czarnik-Neimeyer is assistant director of retreats for the University. On Pope Francis, she said, “There is a universal hope that he speaks to in conversations that he has with people that are kind of turning people’s ears.” In her campus work, she has seen an increase in conversations about Pope Francis, because of the attention he brings to these world issues.

USF business major Brett Maurer’s sisters attended Catholic school and he grew up around Catholicism. Maurer said he saw a lot of the traditions of the Church, some he did not like and some he saw as beautiful. Like Crean, he notes that none of the Church’s teachings have really changed. Maurer believes it will take more than just one man to change a worldwide religion. “I think the pope stands as a good role model, but it is up to the local communities to go after that and use that as a change,” Maurer said. “But you can’t do it with one guy, it has got to be everyone.”

Sophomore hospitality major Alyssa Zuniga is a practicing Catholic and is involved in University Ministry and agrees with Maurer. Zuniga sees the positive things that many also see in Pope Francis; however, she does not see much change when it comes to student interest and involvement in the Church. Zuniga said, “They like what he stands for, but what they don’t understand is that [this] is what all Catholics stand for, it’s not just Pope Francis.”

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