Pope Francis has rekindled interest in religion for some millennials, but not all

Story posted December 1, 2015 in

Youth movement

PHILADELPHIA -- Heels peeling off the concrete as they pushed up on their toes and strained to see, people of all ages, colors and dress pressed against the fence-like metal barriers lining Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Jerry Jimenez, 15, sits atop Eduardo Gallardo, 19, in Philadelphia's Logan Circle on September 26, 2015. The pair said they traveled from Orange County, N.J., to see the Pope. (Photo by Caity Kramer)

Some had been there since 5 a.m., but on the warm, sunny afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 27, they were all waiting patiently for Pope Francis to arrive to celebrate Mass in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Parents were there with children perched on their shoulders. So were people wearing outfits custom- designed for the occasion, such as the woman in a dress made from stitched-together World Meeting of Families logos. And there were teens with eyes fixed on cell phones they used to scroll Twitter, text or play games.

As they waited, some of the faithful ate soft pretzels or slices of pizza. Others napped on blankets in the shade of trees.

Half an hour before the distinguished guest would finally drive by in his Popemobile, a cheer broke out – a kind usually heard at football games, not religious gatherings.

“I say Pope! You say Francis!” ordered a man who was among an energetic group of twentysomethings.





The leader yelled again: “I say Catholic! You say Church!”





Their voices echoed around the Parkway, which leads about a mile to the Museum of Art and the steps Rocky Balboa famously climbed.

Behind this rambunctious bunch sat Penn State graduate Jackie Youngers, 22, of Perkasie, and Mary Plunkett, 21, of Horsham. From their lawn chairs, they couldn’t see much. Hundreds of standing spectators blocked their view of the altar and the huge television screens that would stream the 4 p.m. Mass. The women said they didn’t mind that their view was obstructed.

“It’s part of history,” Youngers said. “We wanted to be part of it, be part of everything.”

Their voices echoed around the Parkway, which leads about a mile to the Museum of Art and the steps Rocky Balboa famously climbed.

In the Millennial demographic, of which Youngers and Plunkett are part, the divide is most apparent. Research shows that members of this generation are increasingly likely to be nonparticipating church members or to consider themselves among the religiously unaffiliated. The Pew Research Center defines a Millennial as someone born after 1980, making the current Millennials between the ages of 18 and 35.

Youngers and Plunkett and thousands of others were gathered for glimpses of the pontiff, who was making his first U.S. visit. This was the second of his two days in Philadelphia and the last day of a week’s journey that also included stops in New York City and Washington, D.C. While in the United States, the pope spoke about forgiveness at a prison and engaged in conversations with victims of priests’ child sexual abuse.

Explaining her affection for Pope Francis, Plunkett said he was “kind and relatable.” Young people, she said, are attracted to those qualities.

Youngers and Plunkett grew up in Catholic households. They are still Catholics, but they acknowledge that they aren’t practicing their religion as actively as they once did.

Like many other Millennials, they are drawn to Pope Francis, with his warm smile and a point of view that seems more forgiving than his predecessors. “Based on what my friends post on Facebook, people like him,” Plunkett said.

But not even these qualities have brought Youngers and Plunkett back to the religious dedication of their youth.

The media portray him positively, Youngers said, but she thinks the news coverage often fails to address a pivotal question: Will Pope Francis bring young people to the Church or draw the disenchanted back to their religion?

Answering that question herself, Youngers said, “I don’t think so.” Her voice trailed off.

“But I think positive things about him.”


Anne Rose, a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, said she thinks often about Millennials and their relationship with organized religion, particularly their relationship with the Catholic Church.

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“It may be that Millennials are unaffiliated more often than in the past, but there are reasons to be cautious about this conclusion,” Rose said.

More than a third of people ages 18 to 29 identify as religiously unaffiliated, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey. That’s an increase of 10 percentage points from 2007. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of Millennials identify as Catholic, down from 22 percent in 2007.

Rose pointed out that religious affiliation for all other age groups has decreased in the last 10 years as well, according to the Pew survey and others.

Pew senior researcher Jessica Hamar Martinez said her organization’s findings during the past decade have shown Millennials’ allegiances to organized religion differ not only from groups today such as Generation X (now ages 35 to 50) and Baby Boomers (now ages 51 to 69), but also from younger demographics in previous decades.

“The Millennials right now are less affiliated than each current generation and less affiliated than each generation was when they were that age,” she said.

At San Diego State University, psychology professor Jean Twenge organized one of the largest surveys on religious organization and published the results in May. She and her colleagues analyzed 11.2 million responses of young people over the last six decades. They found that Millennials are the least religious generation in at least the last 60 years.

Twenge’s research showed that Millennials pray less and are more likely to be turned off by religion. When compared to the 1990s, about 20 percent fewer college students identified themselves as “above average” in spirituality.

Hamar Martinez said Pew’s research has not delved into specific issues that may draw people to or from the Catholic Church or organized religion in general, but she said a 2007 study did indicate that Millennials were “gradually drifting away.”

Rose warned against pigeonholing a specific set of beliefs as “Catholic beliefs” that may attract or turn away young people.

The Church’s doctrines on contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion, women in the priesthood, and doctor-assisted suicide have drawn some public criticism. But if people disagree with a Church’s stance on certain issues, Rose said, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will leave a religion in which they are already invested.

“On doctrines that you might not find reasonable, you can either keep quiet about them or openly question,” Rose said. “And Catholics do both.”

Pope Francis became the 266th pope in 2013. By many, he is viewed as a refreshing contrast to what some see as the rigid dogma of the Catholic Church. He is 78 years old, but he has touched a nerve with younger generations. While Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, had a more modest Twitter presence, Pope Francis has more than 7.5 million followers. Francis has voiced opinions that contradict traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.

For example, about homosexuality, he said, “Who am I to judge?” He washes people’s feet. He lives modestly, choosing not to reside in the luxurious papal residence.

Francis’ views could at some point lead to changes in doctrine, Rose said, but the process of changing Church doctrine is long and arduous. She said some may not fully understand the power – or lack of power – that the pope has to effect meaningful change.


When a SEPTA train finally rolled into the Paoli station about 20 miles west of Philadelphia on the Sunday of Pope Francis’ visit, it was greeted by a cheer from the 200 or so people standing in line to get aboard. The time spent in line had bonded folks from different walks of life, some from the Philadelphia suburbs and others from different parts of the world. As they dispersed into different silver cars, they said goodbye like old friends.

Dressed in black, his white clerical collar making him stand out, the Rev. Jeremy Lambert ducked into one of the cars. His eyes lit up and the corners of his mouth curved into a wide smile, and he was animated as he struck up conversations with those seated near him.

Lambert is 32 but wears an expression younger than his years. Lambert, an Atlanta native who now lives in Washington, is a member of a community of Legionaries of Christ. The Legionaries used to be a powerful religious order within the Catholic Church. But in the early 2000s, with rampant child sexual abuse by priests discovered in many dioceses across the country, the Legionaries were not spared. Their founder was discovered to have sexually abused young seminarians, to have conducted relationships with multiple women, and to have fathered children, several of whom he abused as well.

Traveling to the pope’s Mass in Philadelphia, five ordained and lay members of this community sat together in a middle train car.

As the train made its way toward Philadelphia, Lambert talked about religion. He reflected on his attraction to a life devoted to the Church. Growing up in the country’s evangelical Bible Belt, he attended a high school with about 4,000 students. Only three others were Catholics – one of whom was his sister, he said with a laugh.

“I had to defend my faith a lot,” Lambert said.

He said he made that faith “my own at a very young age.” He continued, “It was a love story. He called me and I listened.” When he was 13, he went on a religious retreat to ski in New Hampshire and fell in love the idea of dedicating his life to the priesthood, he said.

After high school he joined the seminary and spent several years studying in Rome. During that time, he served a Christmas Eve mass for Pope John Paul II and spent time with Pope Benedict XVI.

Lambert said Pope Francis can speak to young people, such as Michael Lorey, an 18-year-old who was traveling with Lambert. Lorey said, “He knows how to connect with people in every age. He knows how to talk to young people and old people.”

The group of Legionaries had seen Pope Francis during his first stop in Washington before driving to the Philadelphia area on Friday.

Despite declining participation and scandal, Lambert said he is confident in the Church’s future. What the Catholic faith offers, he said, is what everyone inherently searches for: “The faith comes with each person’s own experience with God. It’s a fullness of life we desire.” Material things such as a car or a big house, he said, don’t make people truly satisfied.

Lambert thinks young people are looking for what it means to be a good, moral person – “I think they’re drawn to beauty and to the goodness.”


Around Philadelphia’s massive and ornate 30th Street Station, just before the papal Mass, the city felt eerily empty. There were no cars on the streets. At every corner, police officers stood guard. Metal barricades directed visitors to the Parkway.

“Get your pope flags!” yelled a street vendor. “Best Pope Ever” read the buttons one man raised above his head on a piece of cardboard.

High school and college students walked together in large groups. In contrast to the widespread criticism of the city’s security precautions as excessive, many of these pilgrims talked among themselves about their respect and gratitude for the event organizers. Some thanked fatigue-clad National Guard troops as they passed them on the sidewalk.

Inside the secure area, Deirdre O’Leary of Philadelphia and her four friends bounced across the pavement. These seniors from St. Mary’s College and Holy Cross College – two private Catholic schools located near the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana – had taken an overnight bus trip with about 500 college students. They had boarded their buses in Indiana at 5 p.m. Saturday and had arrived in Philadelphia at 5 a.m. Sunday.

If they were sleep-deprived, they didn’t show it.

“We love Pope Francis,” O’Leary said. “Seeing him in my city, which has had some rough times, is special.”

Those rough times included the child sexual-abuse scandal that also plagued the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Hundreds of priests were defrocked and the Church paid $1.45 million to victims.
Holy Cross senior Patrick Phelan of San Diego said he was drawn to the pope’s humility. Phelan mentioned the way Francis responds to letters written to him, the way he acknowledges the Church’s past faults, and the way he speaks as if he is not greater than his congregants.

“He’s very open,” said O’Leary’s friend Andree Louvierrei, particularly in his views on tolerating homosexuality and on women becoming more involved in leadership roles in the Church. “He speaks and writes very eloquently.”


Professor Rose said no single set of beliefs represents young people in the Church.

“It is really impossible to say what current doctrines of the Catholic Church young Catholics like or don’t like,” Rose said. “I teach many Catholic students, and they really take every imaginable position on Church teachings. One would like to say young Catholics tend to be liberals on social issues, but I wouldn’t say that’s a hard- and-fast rule.”

Most of her students support gay rights, such as gay marriage, but Rose noted that her religious studies course tends to draw both the religiously involved and students who have religious doubts or disagreements.

“I think it is a mistake to see him as a thoroughgoing liberal,” Rose said of Pope Francis. “It is true that by his appointments to the hierarchy and his various papal statements he has created an atmosphere of charity and openness. But this will not change Church doctrine by itself, and I believe he fully realizes it.”


Though she didn’t attend the pope’s visit, Penn State junior Nicole Feretich, 20, of Monroe Township, N.J., loves Pope Francis – the “favorite pope” of her lifetime. She said she agrees with his views on homosexuality and appreciates the way he seems to take himself less seriously than past popes.

Her childhood friend, Sam Cicatello, 20, also of Monroe Township, is drawn to the pope even though she has strayed from organized religion. “It comforts me that the most respected man in the Church is so open-minded and purely loving,” said Cicatello, a student at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. “I get the impression the pope speaks the language of love, with no regard to hatred, and that really means a lot – especially to me, since I identify as bisexual.”

But even Pope Francis’ charisma won’t bring parishioners back to the pews, Feretich said. “I really like this one,” she said, “but he’s not going to make me go to church. It’s definitely not enough, unless he personally was going to be at my church every Sunday.”

Her viewpoint is widely shared. A Pew Research Center study done after the pope’s visit found that Francis’ favorability rose among non-Catholic adults but dropped slightly – from 86 to 81 percent – among Catholics.

Pew’s Hamar Martinez said her organization has yet to note significant change in Church participation among any demographic since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013.

“It’s kind of too early to tell with Francis. We know so far that we have not seen more people telling us that they are Catholic,” she said.

Feretich grew up with religion ingrained in her from a young age. Her father was almost a priest, she said, and he sent her and her siblings to Catholic school. Feretich said she ended up leaving her Catholic high school because she disagreed with many of the Church’s teachings and also because she found the girls to be “cliquey.”

Looking back, Feretich said she was never fond of going to Mass. Her parents had to drag her out of bed each week. “I felt like it was so unnecessary to put so much effort into something you believe in,” she said. “I read this quote in a book one time: ‘Going to church makes you no more a Catholic than standing in a garage makes you a car.’”

Cicatello said, “I tried the Sunday school thing and the whole idea of almost needing to fear God every day just made me believe it was wrong.”

Feretich said that after she got the sacrament of Confirmation – the sacrament technically makes you an adult in the Church – she decided she wanted to stop going. The child sexual-abuse scandal further turned her off from her faith, she said. “Whenever my priest was around me, I was creeped out.

There’s creepy stuff happening behind these doors, and the Church just said, ‘Let’s not acknowledge that.’ ”

Feretich said she still prays, but nothing formal, “every time an emergency vehicle passes. I don’t know if it’s out of guilt or I’m scared.” Feretich has decided she won’t force her own children to be Catholic. If they don’t want to be religious at all, she said, that will be OK with her.

Cicatello sees her relationship with religion remaining stagnant. It’s not a part of her daily life now and likely won’t be 10 years from now, she said; she just focuses on trying to be a good person.


To reach the Parkway before Pope Francis’ mass, a group of students from Princeton University made a short trip – less than two hours by bus. These bus riders were not all Catholics. Some were attracted by Francis’ demeanor and some by what they said were his relatively liberal beliefs.

Emely DeJesus, 20, of Perth Amboy, N.J., said it was refreshing to see her friends become intrigued by Pope Francis, even those who aren’t Catholic. DeJesus, who was raised in the faith, is a member of the Catholic Ministry on Campus, and Pope Francis’ popularity has helped her start more conversations about religion with her friends of all religious denominations. “I know a lot of my friends love him or are super intrigued by him,” she said.

Diana Hernandez, 21, of Ecuador, said she loves the way Pope Francis preaches love for everyone and does not judge people of different sexual orientations, or even the prisoners he met with during his Philadelphia trip. “I think this pope has the grace to touch people with his beliefs and his focus on serving others,” she said.

Chris Reuter, 25, of Louisiana, said he was attracted by the pope’s energy and steadfast dedication to all his beliefs and opinions. Even if the opinion is contrary to the Church’s doctrine, he said, Pope Francis speaks his mind.

“He definitely personally has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the faith,” said Luisa Banchoff, of Arlington, Va. “I think especially talking to people who separated from the Catholic Church. They want to talk about him. I think that’s really powerful. He has no boundaries.”

Pope Francis ended his Mass on the Parkway with a simple request: “I ask you to pray for me. Don’t forget.”

This was not the first time Pope Francis had offered that plea, which several Millennials in the crowd said showed how he sees himself as one of the people, not holier-than- thou.


As a professor, Rose said she ponders why people are becoming less affiliated.

Naturally, Rose said, when people join churches – or become gung-ho on anything, for that matter – the shine wears off after a while. Disagreement with church policy or disputes within the organization could alienate members; hence the ebb and flow of religious activity.

“If you lose your faith, this is – I hate to say it – often an important phase of religious experience,” Rose said. “The ‘dark night of the soul’ may well be periodic– just as much as enthusiastic faith. Indifference – spiritual coldness – is also part of religious experience. Numbers can’t tell you anything about these factors. All this is not to say that our religious experiences are solitary; our religious group influences how we feel privately. Still, there is a core of existential, personal experience that is very hard to uncover – and numbers don’t do it.”

Church participation and enthusiasm are certainly not declining globally, she said. In the underdeveloped world, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, Christianity reigns.

About 82 percent of Christians resided in the Northern Hemisphere in the 1990s, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. The center estimates that by 2025 around 68 percent of Christians will live in the Southern Hemisphere.

“It’s often been true, historically speaking, that college-aged young people have been irreligious,” Rose said. “There are some exceptions: in the U.S. in the early 1800s, young people were religiously enthusiastic. But from the mid- 19th century on in the U.S., young people tend to fall away, and often return once they have families of
their own.”


Penn State senior Christine Kilbride is from Warminster, north of Philadelphia, but she chose not to make the three-hour trip from the Penn State campus to see the pope. A week after his visit, she sat at a table at a State College Starbucks and spoke about how she had fallen away from the Catholic faith that had been ingrained into her as a child.

She didn’t realize how detached she had become until the end of the summer, when, at home near Philadelphia, Kilbride said people were talking about the pope’s visit. It got her thinking – thinking about how she felt about Catholicism. She even penned an op-ed that was published in the Philadelphia Daily News before the Pope’s visit.

“I had all these thoughts one day: I don’t like this and I don’t like this and I don’t like this,” Kilbride said. “It’s been kind of a transition away from it. It’s not like one day I woke up and said ‘I’m not religious.’ ”

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She said she does feel drawn to Pope Francis. She said it makes her happy to hear that he doesn’t live in fancy chambers, that he washes people’s feet and seems humble. “That’s brought me back a little,” Kilbride said, spreading her hands wide in front of her to show separation. “I mean, I’m so far away ...” Then, moving her hands toward each other, she said: “It’s brought me a little bit closer. I do identify with him.”

Kilbride grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Her father was raised in the religion; her mother grew up Protestant, converting to Catholicism after the marriage. It was important to both her parents and especially her father that she and her siblings grow up in the faith. She went through all the sacraments, attended religious education classes every Tuesday night, and volunteered as an altar server. Her family went to church each weekend, whether Mass was at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday or at 11 a.m. Sunday.

Kilbride goes to Mass sporadically now. “I go when I’m home. I’ve gone here and there at college, like Ash Wednesday,” she said.

During her freshman year, Kilbride became friends with another Catholic. Both were in Penn State’s Blue Band, and they went to mass together some Sundays and ate brunch together afterward. But by spring semester, Kilbride stopped going – a combination of laziness and apathy, she said. She feels guilty because Catholicism means so much to her father, who sometimes goes to church in Center City during his lunch breaks and has volunteered to give out Eucharist at the local hospital.

Three issues within the Church particularly drew Kilbride further from her faith:

  •  The Church’s opposition to gay marriage. “I remember talking to my parents and they said, ‘Yeah, we went to church on Sunday and Father [the priest] basically expressed very clearly that even though it was legalized in all 50 states, the Church is still not OK with it and neither should you.’ It’s just not supposed to be like that. If God’s love is unconditional, then why would it matter whether you’re in love with a man or a woman and what your personal gender? I just don’t understand how you can make that plea for God. I know it was in the Bible but the Bible was written a really long time ago.”
  • The Church’s prohibition of women in the priesthood. Kilbride never felt called to become a priest, but she said women are certainly capable of serving in that role. As long as they’re God-loving, she doesn’t see a problem.
  • The child sexual-abuse scandal that rocked the Church’s foundation. One of the priests who was defrocked after allegations of child sexual abuse had served at her parish, and Kilbride remembers her disgust upon learning that he was implicated. When the priest left the priesthood quietly, parishioners wanted answers. “A lot of people expressed, ‘Why? What happened? What did he do to get defrocked?’ And I remember at the end of mass they were like, ‘That’s not something God would want us to focus on.’ They basically said, ‘Too bad, we’re not going to tell you.’ It’s just like, after all that, you don’t think we deserve to know as members of this parish, members of the Catholic Church?”

Praying had never come easy to her, she said, even growing up in a devoutly Catholic environment. Now she prays during times of desperation, but even then it feels silly. “It’s almost like the Catholic Church is so structured that there’s no room for having this freeform relationship with God. They don’t want you to. They want you to repeat after me. ... They want to basically tell you what to think about different issues, politically. I feel like the Catholic Church wants to dictate how to be Catholic.”

Even though Kilbride is drawn to Pope Francis and his beliefs, she speaks about the future of her faith with uncertainty.

“If I end up marrying someone who’s Jewish, I may not be as linked to [Catholicism] anymore. I know my parents wouldn’t be thrilled with that. I’m sure that they want me to have babies and have them be Catholic. I don’t know if I’m strong-willed enough to say ‘I want to stick with my religion because I was raised in it,’ ” Kilbride said.

She calls herself a sentimental person, she said, and that would be the only reason she may end up wanting her children to be baptized – not because of this pope, not because of this newfound sense of optimism about the Church.

“’I’m not going to say I’m expecting any big changes in the Catholic Church,” she said. “Because they just won’t.”


(This story by Erin McCarthy earned second place nationally in the feature writing competition of the Hearst Journalism Awards. It was also published in The Lion's Roar obn Dec. 1, 2015.)