American millennials needed Pope Francis. My generation – characterized by our posting, uploading, downloading, and messaging – needed a pope who was able to speak the Gospel to us through personalized media. We required a shepherd that could offer soundbytes that packed a punch, so that whatever catechesis or message he delivered would cut through the rest of the noise we encounter on all our screens social media. We needed a pope who would repeat himself in small servings so that his lessons might stick in the mind and transform the heart.
The images from St. Peter’s Square on the evening of March 13, 2013, a year ago now, painted a picture of a crowd that had greatly changed from the one that had awaited the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005. The group waiting for the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was holding a vigil for him as they did for Benedict, but they exchanged candlelight for the LED screens of electronic devices they brought with them to capture the moment.
Pope Francis, just like his namesake, has figured out a way to preach the gospel, and when necessary use a few pointed words.” His missionary zeal captured in pictures that go viral, his regular morning tweets, and his reflections to the young have conveyed four main themes that he is playing on repeat: joy, marriage, and integrity. For American millennials, these messages could not be more welcome.
1) Joy. If there is one word that Pope Francis never tires of, it is “joy.” This man almost bursts with it whenever he speaks of how wonderful it is to be a Christian and to belong to the Church. During Advent of last year he tweeted, “The Christian message is called the ‘Gospel,’ that is, ‘the good news,’ an announcement of joy for all people; the Church is not a refuge for sad people, the Church is a house of joy.”
In a homily last May he preached:
It’s the Spirit that guides us: He is the author of joy, the Creator of joy. And this joy in the Holy Spirit gives us true Christian freedom. Without joy, we Christians cannot become free, we become slaves to our sorrows. The great Paul VI said that you cannot advance the Gospel with sad, hopeless, discouraged Christians. You cannot. A certain mournful behavior, no? Often Christians behave as if they were going to a funeral procession rather than to praise God, no? And this joy comes from praise…praise of God.
And let’s not forget that his first apostolic exhortation was a massive document on the subject. It’s clear that the Pope is convinced that Catholics’ most effective tool in evangelization is sharing the joy that comes from the person of Jesus Christ.
While he speaks of joy as an effective tool for conversion, he also recognizes that many people are lacking it. It is clear that our nation in particular is desperately in need of it. Last year, suicide rates of Americans skyrocketed across all generations, with more people dying from suicide than automobile accidents. The Centers for Disease Control reported this year that suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between ages 10-24. Nowhere is the message of joy needed that here at home, where despair is so prevalent. The Pope has given us a great gift in inviting us to belong to Christ, and to find in the Church a place of hope and support.
2) Marriage. The Pope’s message to young men and women regarding marriage has been pretty clear: 1) You should get married; 2) It’s possible to stay married; and 3) It’s possible to be very happy when you are married. The pope’s encouragement in this arena is just as timely as his message of joy. As the average age of marriage rises in the United States and as it increasingly becomes seen as an option in front of the possibility of cohabitation or extended adolescence, the pope insists that those called to this vocation should take it seriously and get moving. To the volunteers at World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero he said,
God calls you to make definitive choices, and He has a plan for each of you: to discover that plan and to respond to your vocation is to move toward personal fulfillment. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes that you are incapable of responsibility, that you are incapable of true love.
And on Valentine’s Day this year, the Pope met with 10,000 engaged couples to offer practical advice to sustain and grow their marriage including letting go of expectations that one’s spouse will be perfect, extending courtesy and forgiveness, and committing to a lasting marriage that does not just count the years but also considers the quality of a marriage.
These tips reflected many of the Holy Father’s tweets on the subject. On October 14, 2013 the Pope tweeted, “Young people, do not be afraid to make decisive choices; the Lord will not abandon you!” And on Valentine’s Day, “Dear young people, do not be afraid to marry. A faithful and fruitful marriage will bring you happiness.” And on March 8, “The challenge for Christian spouses: remaining together, knowing how to love one another always, and doing so in a way that their love grows.”
3) Integrity. One message that the Pope has repeated during this first year is that one “cannot be a part-time Christian.” To belong to Christ means that one is always “on” for Him. Pope Francis wants joyful Christians, but he always wants committed Christians. This means that people cannot be ashamed of parts of the Gospel. We cannot pick and choose which of the Commandments to follow. It means we cannot be committed to protecting nascent life if we are not also committed to rectifying the injustices that cause poverty. We cannot be content to “sleep peacefully while babies are dying of hunger and the elderly are without medical assistance.”
This also means that we cannot worship God on Sunday and then go back to the rest of our lives – work, family, dating, and socialization – as if our faith is just one of many aspects of our lives that we keep compartmentalized. The life of the Christian must be an integrated one. It’s the very life of the Christian that makes Christ’s message believable to the non-believer. The way we socialize, what we say on social media, the choices we make about our careers, finances, and leisure time all give witness to what we say we profess. Of course we will make mistakes in our attempt to live this integrity. This is why the mercy of God – another one of Francis’ themes – is always available to us.
There is significant potential for this message to transform our personal lives. Young people are taking seriously the Pope’s call to serve life in all of its stages and conditions, as the Pope himself is doing. But it also has great implications for our nation as we consider the meaning of religious liberty. The Supreme Court is set to begin hearing arguments debating the ability of religious employers to refuse to provide health care coverage for services that violate their moral and religious beliefs. These services – which cover contraception, abortion, and sterilization – violate Catholic beliefs. The Pope himself has affirmed the value of life in all of its stages of the fact the responsible parenthood includes openness to life as a gift. Pope Francis insists, “Catholics can't put their faith on a part-time schedule or rely on it just for the moments they choose; being Christian is a full-time occupation.” Americans will soon find out the cost of full-time Christianity. However, with the Holy Father’s encouragement, it not only seems possible, but joyful to do so.