The Francis effect: Are millennials coming back?

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It’s called the “Francis Effect” – new or disaffiliated Catholics returning to the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis. But is it attracting millennials?

La Salle University chapel, where attendance at mass has held its own, according to the resident priest.

La Salle University chapel, where attendance at mass has held its own, according to the resident priest.

At La Salle University, a Catholic school founded by the Christian Brothers, religion is everywhere. Especially Catholicism. Yet, for years, a joke has circulated on the Lasalle campus: Parents send their kids to La Salle because it’s Catholic; students come because they know that it isn’t.

Young people leaving the fold

The Catholic Church has been losing followers, primarily young people, for years. While many stick around after leaving their parents’ home, just as many, if not more, leave their religious roots behind.

Rebecca Polisi

Rebecca Polisi

Rebecca Polisi, a senior education major at La Salle, says she was raised Catholic but does not practice her religion as much as she should.

“I pray when I feel like I need to. I used to go to church every Sunday, but now I only go to Mass Christmas and Easter,” Polisi said. “I used to dislike the people who only went on Christmas and Easter, but now I’m one of them.”

Jill Johannes, a senior nursing major, said, “Once I went to college, I was already questioning my faith. I believe in God, but I’m ‘iffy’ about some teachings and principles. I don’t know too much about the Pope because, quite honestly, I don’t pay attention.”

Jill Johannes

Jill Johannes

John Prajzner, a senior accounting major, has distanced himself from the church over time. In his youth he feared violating Catholic tradition and thus became inactive in his faith during his freshmen year at La Salle. While he’s no longer a devout Catholic, he admires the pope’s approach thus far.

“He rejects the wealth and novelty of being the pope and he doesn’t want to show off stuff like the previous pope, and he’s really denouncing things of the previous regime,” said Prajzner.

When asked if Pope Francis could make him more involved in his faith, he replied, “If it were any pope, it would have to be him.”

On the other hand, there are plenty of students at La Salle who are drawn to the faith in part because of Francis.

Emily Tomlin, a junior digital arts and English major, considers herself a Catholic even though she was not raised Catholic and doesn’t regularly practice Catholicism. She also said that she knew very little about Catholicism before coming to La Salle, but she has learned much since her freshman year.

“If anything, Pope Francis has inspired me to dive deeper into what it means to be Catholic,” she said. “After seeing first-hand how much influence he has had on the people I truly care about, I’m eager to learn as much as I can about Catholicism, and to maybe even reconnect with the faith that I’ve lost over the years.”

Francis points to modern age

Deidre McVey, another junior digital arts major, feels like the pope is bringing the church into the modern age, for young people and not just their parents.

“He makes me want to be a better Catholic, and if all masses were said by him, I would attend every day,” said McVey. “He is so accepting of everyone no matter who they are, and to me, I believe that that’s what Jesus would’ve preached as well.”

Taylor Troyanoski is a junior psychology major at La Salle who has attended Catholic school throughout her life. She believes there is a business mentality present in many churches.

“I worked with a church over the summer and everything they want to do is all about money and giving dues, which takes away from our faith,” said Troyanoski. “Instead of the church just doing things to do it, [it instead has its efforts] going more towards [collecting] money.”

Not “some holy roller saint”

Like many, Troyanoski’s first impressions of the pope are favorable.

“I think Pope Francis shows people that there is hope for the Catholic faith. He comes off like a human being and not some ‘holy roller saint,’” she said. “He’s very open and easy going. That’s what the Catholic Church needs to get things done.”

She appreciates his efforts but warns improvement is a two-way street.

“He’s done what he can do to reach out to us but we have to meet him halfway and care about what he’s saying. We’re the future. If we notice the problems, then we need to be able to step up and do something about it,” said Troyanoski.

Steve Graham

Steve Graham

One student, Steve Graham, a junior communication major, has a different perspective on Pope Francis.

“What I’ve thought differently about Pope Francis is that the past popes have just told you what is referred to as strict, religious, Catholic church teaching,” said Graham. “He’s adapting in a way that, I’d say, most of the Catholic church would disagree with.”

“More and more, it’s skepticism, it’s ‘what’s going on?’. . . The Catholic Church, as a whole, is a conservative institution, so I’d say they’re more and more questioning his decisions,” said Graham, in reference to Church officials’ opinion of the pope.

Francis “dodging questions”

Graham believes the pope is “dodging questions,” and “needs to better solidify what he’s trying to say and not be so up for interpretation.”

He does believe the pope is reaching millennials, however, and he has a theory of why.  “When you have the Huffington Post and the mainstream media covering the pope in a positive way the majority of the time, he’ll reach the millennials well,” he said. “That’s what they read. When Buzzfeed is covering the pope really well, that’s what they read. . . I think the pope is held in high esteem with people our age, right now.”

Whether or not Graham’s theory is correct remains to be seen.

“Our surveys over the last two years or so show that Pope Francis is certainly popular among U.S. adults, and especially among Catholics,” says Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, which recently released a new report on changing attitudes among Catholics.

Is the “Francis Effect” a real phenomenon?

Martinez says it’s difficult to measure.

“It is less clear whether that popularity has resulted in a so-called ‘Francis Effect,’” she said. “For example, we have not seen any growth in the share of Americans who identify as Catholic in recent years, and. . .  about a year into Francis’ papacy, found no change in reported frequency of Mass attendance among Catholics, nor any evidence that large numbers of Catholics were going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.”

No growth in numbers

Martinez doesn’t want to suggest that the Francis Effect is better suited to describe the opposite effect, either. Since his election into the papacy, Pope Francis has energized many Catholic spirits.

Some Catholics reported feeling more excited about their Catholic faith in the time since Francis became Pope, and others said they had been praying more often or reading the Bible more often, said Martinez.

In an interview, Martinez explained that questions about Catholics’ faith and practices were not tied explicitly to Francis’ papacy.

“We did not ask people if their feelings or behaviors had changed because of Pope Francis so it is difficult to say whether any changes are a direct result of Catholics’ excitement about Pope Francis,” she said.

Want millennials? Be in touch.

The Rev. Richard Gross, La Salle’s resident priest, has observed some of the attitudes of millennial Catholics. He thinks the church’s biggest problems stem from it being out of touch with society.

“The Catholic Church can’t be isolated from the rest of society. It needs to be a part of it,” said Fr. Gross.

Fr. Gross believes millennials think for themselves more than past generations. That they don’t view authority the same way because of the failures within the government and church.

“The millennial generation is different. When I was a kid you didn’t challenge authority,” he said. “This generation hasn’t been able to trust authority. Too often they feel authority has betrayed them so they’re more likely to think for themselves.”

Despite the millennial way of thinking, he has been pleased with the number of students participating in mass.

“A lot of young people are looking for a foundation because of ambiguity and rootlessness; that’s a tough way of going through life. Not having any place to put your trust,” said Fr. Gross.

He sees the church as a tool for growth and becoming a better person.

“What I really encourage people to do is to be reflective and responsible about the decisions you make. At our services I think they’re engaged more than they would be at their local church. It’s always easier to preach to a homogeneous group, as opposed to a group of different ages,” said Fr. Gross.

One thing for sure is that Pope Francis is in Philadelphia for the next few days, millennials, will take notice.

Probably through their phones.

The millennial generation of churchgoers is just as likely to take a “selfie” for Snapchat even if they don’t take communion.

After all if you don’t take a picture, were you really there?