I remember hearing about the previous pope, Benedict XVI, while I was in high school. Some of my favorite highlights include him condemning the Harry Potter series because it led people to “Satanism,” rejecting the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and his strange obsession with papal attire. Let’s not forget his belief that homosexuality was a “disorder.”
But now, it seems, the Catholic church has undergone a turnaround that even Buddy Christ couldn’t have produced: Pope Francis.
Compared with his predecessor, who my peers seemed to enjoy only for the ability to collectively roll their eyes at him, Francis gets nothing but abject praise. While I can’t help but wonder how Europeans and conservative Catholics who may have favored Benedict’s policies feel about him, I can tell you why young Americans love the new pope so much.
He Accepts LGBT People
Though America is still slowly getting its act together on gay marriage, young people now grow up with openly gay and lesbian friends and relatives. It seems absurd to us at this point to describe homosexuality as a “disorder” like good ole’ Benedict did. This is why, when Pope Francis declared, “Who am I to judge?” with regard to homosexual priests, young Americans blinked with shock, then followed with a cheer. To be clear, the church still condemns “homosexual acts” (can’t let them get too crazy!), but loving the person is a doctrine far afield from labeling them “disordered.”
He is Humble in All Aspects of Life
Pope Benedict decked himself out in the “traditional,” ostentatious reds of the highest church office, bringing them out of mothballs from the days before Pope John Paul II’s papacy began in 1978. Pope Francis, on the other hand, abandoned all the swag in favor of modest, white attire. And rather than being shuffled around in a pagoda escorted in a fancy papal car, Francis opted to drive himself around the Vatican in a 1984 Renault that was donated to him—but not until after he tried to get the person to give it to the poor. He also put a German priest in his place after discovering that he spent $43 million in church funds on a new home. This humility and connection with common people brings the papacy from the “holier than thou” heights of Benedict, and this strikes a chord with my (and many other young Americans’) egalitarian proclivities.
He Practices What He Preaches
When many Americans, particularly young Americans, think of Christ, they think of a fundamentally humble figure. They think of the man who would approach lepers at a time when no one else would; a man who engaged with people rather than shunning them; a man who tended to the sick, the poor, and the needy. This is how Americans tend to see Jesus, and this is how Pope Francis has conducted himself. He met with over 600 people with physical disabilities—one by one. I personally will never forget when he descended into a crowd of people to kiss and bless two men with severe skin deformities, types of people that many would shy away from. Pope Francis embraces the outcast. He welcomes the poor. This is what Christ means to American Millennials.
But it’s not just Catholics or even Christians who are praising and falling in love with the new Pope. Secularists of all kinds have stepped up to praise him. Even some of the more “die-hard” atheists have been singing Pope Francis’ praises. This is for all of the reasons above, but something else is at play here. Pope Francis has hit on some of the core American values (which have absolutely been informed by Christianity): tolerance, humility, and practicing what you preach, that even I, as an American pagan, have folded into my spirituality.
If one man can begin to undo decades, if not years, of young disenfranchisement with the church in just a few months, think of what politicians could do, en masse, for political engagement among young people if they just adopted these simple principles. Politicians, take note: Tolerate those who are different from you, engage with people on topics of disagreement rather than condescendingly dismissing them, and back up with your actions what you say in your words.
This is the key to bringing back young voters. Young Americans—from the Catholics to the pagans to the atheists—have little tolerance for dishonesty and games. We dig that the new Pope has shirked the usual dressings of authority to commune with people on their level. Maybe when politicians get the picture, young people will rejoin the rest of the political world.