Francis, a Pope for All Catholics (Especially Millennials)

By: Kevin D. Sullivan

July 8, 2013

At every turn, the new Holy Father has been courageous.

Pope Francis has opted for a simpler life, expressed a sincere humility in his position of incredible leadership, and challenged Christians to fulfill Christ’s mission in a tone never heard before. We have been invited not to follow him, but to join him in our common spiritual journey. As he continues to visibly and prayerfully come into solidarity with us, the laity, it is time that we do our part to come into solidarity with him. He has offered the world, particularly Millennial Catholics, the opportunity to partake in the papacy in a way never seen before. It is time for us to become papists.
The term “papist” was historically used as a “dirty” word, an anti-Catholic slur. In the American context of political separation of church and state, it was particularly negative. It attempted to pigeonhole Catholics into what was most “suspicious” about them, their supposed unshakable allegiance to a foreign power and monarch, the Pope, who was often historically represented as having great earthly influence in addition to his spiritual authority. All the way up until the election of John F. Kennedy, Americans expressed concern about the “allegiances” of Catholic politicians. Granted, the papacy often did find itself more engaged with the political feuds of Europe than it did with the Kingdom of God, but that world is gone. The negativity around the term papist should go with it, and as Pope Francis calls us to understand our faith in this world in movingly new ways, we should re-embrace the term in answering his call.

Millennial Catholics’ search for guidance and leadership continues to be frustrated in a number of ways. The American political system is marred by incivility and dishonesty. The idols of our pop culture are arrested, embarrass themselves publicly and live lavishly. But even when we have sincerely looked to the church in America for the courage and joy to live, in essence, “counter-culturally,” it has often been lacking. A timid response to the child abuse scandal and political division among our own bishops and religious orders has left many Catholic Millennials timid themselves. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave Catholics many intellectual gifts of the faith, ones that we need now more than ever in an increasingly hostile secular environment, but they did not come with the type of personal courage to overcome this frustration.

Enter Cardinal Bergoglio. As the successor of Peter, the rock on whom the church is built, Pope Francis is the leader we have been waiting for. His language transcends political bickering and reaches us more deeply than the latest celebrity gossip. His courage gives us the strength to share the “fruits” of the church, to break out of the very self-referentialism that has caused many Catholics to think about church politics before their faith, and walk away. To become papists, we could openly accept and embrace Pope Francis as the authentic leader we have been looking for, someone whose love for mankind can transcend the political and social prejudices which unnecessarily divide us.

Millennials make up a large percentage of those who have distanced themselves from the church. They “love Christ, but not the church.” As the Holy Father expressed in his May 29th homily, such a position does not make sense because “it is the church that brings us Christ and brings us to God. The church is the great family of God’s children.” The “pastor pope” Francis is the shepherd whose comforting and humility have the power to find the “lost.” His words remind us to see the church not as inclusive and self-referential, but an active body of people present in all the corners of the world. To become papists, we would answer his challenge and join him in making the church authentically loving towards all. Taylor Swift may have demonstrated a generation’s desire for a “Love Story,” but Pope Francis has offered a competitor. As papists, we would declare with him that the “church is a love story, not an institution.”

Skeptics in the past declared papists to be “subservient” to the pope, a sentiment that would surely be anathema to my generation. But it is Pope Francis’ admonitions, particularly to the young, that shatters this idea. Our “freedom” is not challenged, but instead recruited for good use towards courageously building a better world. “Dear young people, do not bury your talents, the gifts that God has given you! Do not be afraid to dream of great things!” “Dear young people, the church expects great things of you and your generosity. Don’t be afraid to aim high.” His tweets call us not to “submit,” but to actively go forth and “do” with purpose. In being papists, we would recognize the special role that we have been called to, reinvigorating the church and the world with our youth and zeal. This is the greater purpose that so many sociologists and psychologists have felt our yearning for. We know that we have great talents and a passion to put them to good use, but we are increasingly frustrated by our inability to find such fulfillment in schools and our jobs. Pope Francis points us to the means to transcend that frustration: “Let us put our trust in God’s power at work! With him, we can do great things.”

His papacy also dispels traditional “suspicions” of such great spiritual authority because it is one that we have been called to partake in. Pope Francis has not asked the laity to simply do as the church asks, but has expressed his desire for a mutual responsibility to the world. We are partners in his mission, in the same way that Christ’s disciples were truly his friends and companions. Calling oneself a papist would be entering into that partnership. It would be an embrace of the hope and liveliness that we all feel to be missing. Even more powerfully, and perhaps ironically, it is an identity that men and women of all faiths can partake in. Protestant leader Timothy George phrased the sentiment in Christianity Today well: “Our Francis, Too.”

As the Holy Father continues to show remarkable courage, there is only one more way we can fully stand in solidarity with him. By showing courage ourselves as American papists. Such an embrace is not simply about allowing Pope Francis to lead us, but also about helping him to lead. Humbling himself from the moment of his very first words as Pope, Francis has offered us an opportunity that Millennial Catholics can uniquely embrace. By praying with him and journeying with him as papists, it will be more than the church that is renewed. It will be our entire culture as well.

This blog was originally published in the Washington Post.
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Francis, a Pope for All Catholics (Especially Millennials)