The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Millennials embrace Pope Francis

Thousands flood 15th Avenue moments after the pope mobile exited the parade route Wednesday morning. Many visitors continued on to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and the Basilica of the National Shrine at the Catholic University of America to catch more glimpses of Pope Francis.
Thousands flood 15th Avenue moments after the pope mobile exited the parade route Wednesday morning. Many visitors continued on to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and the Basilica of the National Shrine at the Catholic University of America to catch more glimpses of Pope Francis. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

WASHINGTON D.C. — His humility, his identity as an Argentine, even his insistence on driving a fuel efficient fiat through the nation’s capital: these are some of the traits young Americans list off when explaining their infatuation with the South American pope. But there is something else that draws the least religious generation in American history to the Catholic leader of the world.

“I’m not Catholic,” Eric Schneider, 29, said. Yet he listened carefully to the Papal address to Congress Thursday, “to get a sense of the gravity of all this.”

Attention has orbited around Pope Francis in the U.S., particularly with millennials, who applaud his environmental concerns and emphasis on caring for the poor. The Catholic world is 1.2 billion wide, but Francis fandom, even among non-Catholics, is strong and growing.

“The religious component isn’t really important to me,” Schneider said. “It’s that (Francis) is preaching a value system that is about mutual accountability, people looking out for each other and not dismissing the poor, which should be a universal issue.”

Non-Catholics like Schneider were among the thousands crowded on the Capitol steps and at a rally on the National Mall. Their roars of approval could be heard from a distance down Pennsylvania Avenue. It marked the first Papal address to Congress in U.S. history, and silence hovered above the crowd as Francis’ soft voice read the passionate speech in slow, practiced English.

Many label Francis as a liberal and progressive, but for Stephanie Echeveste, 29, and her sister Valerie, 25, Francis is simply Catholic.

“Catholicism as an institution has formed beliefs and interpreted the Bible and Jesus Christ in a very specific way that actually isn’t what I always agree with,” Stephanie said. With his emphasis on family and the golden rule, “it’s more like going back to the basics.”

The two sisters have a strong Catholic tradition in their family and went to Catholic high school, but Francis has a presence that they say revitalized their faith on a trip to the World Youth Day in Rio.

“There is just a very renewed spirit and energy with Pope Francis. That’s what people are really catching on to,” Valerie said. “Catholic means universal. Pope John II was equally universal, but Pope Francis is totally on a different age and era.”

Part of this universal appeal comes from Francis’ background, Elias Blanco, 30, said.

“I think this is a historic moment in our nation’s history,” Blanco said.“This is the first pope from Latin America, his first time in the US, and anytime the pope comes or visits a country it brings a message of hope, of unity.”

The altar is ornately decorated at the Basilica of the National Shrine for the Pope's evening mass Wednesday.
The altar is ornately decorated at the Basilica of the National Shrine for the Pope’s evening mass Wednesday. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

According to the Pew Research Center, 425 million Catholics, or 40 percent of the entire Catholic population lives in Latin America. Yet out of 266 popes, Francis is the first Jesuit, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European since 741 A.D.   

“He’s a pope of the people. And that’s very characteristic of the Hispanic culture, a relational pope,” Blanco said.

In many Americans’ minds, Catholicism connotes social and political conservatism, a belief system resistant to accept the LGBT community and climate change. But fans of Francis said he is a positive figure who will carry the church forward to embrace the modern era, with a Catholic twist.

“He is a Pope that is very much connected with the reality of our times,” Blanco said. “He’s aware of the difficulties that are around, and he very much speaks to that. Pope Francis doesn’t hold back. He speaks what a lot of people think, but don’t say.”

“The fact that he has a Twitter and that he talks about technology doing good, it really speaks to the millennials of our generation,” Valerie said. “He’s looking for us to do something good with technology and that’s really inspiring.”  

Many at the events in D.C. had seen other popes in their lifetime. Elizabeth Gamero, 56, met Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict at their visits to DC. There is a magical quality about being in a pope’s presence, she said, but Francis is a little different. Like many others who tried describing the magical essence of Francis, she said, “this is a pope of the people.”

“He is reaching out to everyone. He doesn’t just choose the Catholics,” Gamero said.

Brianna Bee, 21, also said Francis wasn’t just speaking to Catholics.

“I would say you definitely don’t have to be catholic to feel like his spirit, his faith,” Bee said. “People are just so enthused to have someone who is so humble and holy be in your presence.”

Bee is a senior at the Catholic University of America, where the Francis gave the evening Mass Wednesday. Many students entered a raffle for free tickets to the Mass, Bee said.

“I think that he does appeal to younger people because he is so progressive in his views. Just the last couple of months he’s talked about LGBT rights, women’s rights, the abortion issue, the refugee issue, climate change — he’s touched upon many issues that are important to us as college students and that we talk about frequently in our classes,” Bee said.

Francis has made a political name for himself and fans expect him to continue pressuring political authorities to address climate change, the refugee crisis and poverty around the world.

When asked whether Francis’ involvement was crossing religious-secular lines, John Noel, 30, a Catholic and environmentalist from DC said, “it’s the job of the Pope to use his authority to help society in the most positive way possible. I think talking on every single issue is important because people need to hear it. Who else are we supposed to listen to?”

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