Easter is one of two holidays — the other being Christmas — that people who seldom think of crossing a church’s doors decide to step back in and find a pew. Many Catholics had hoped that the popularity of Pope Francis, whose words and actions have offered encouragement to many, might bring the lapsed back or attract a flood of new converts.
That hasn’t happened.
But there’s no denying that Francis, with his willingness to talk about doubt and reflect on his love of the tango as a young man, and his openness to taking selfies, is appealing to a wide array of people, especially millennial Catholics. And he’s inspiring a different type of commitment among them. Although they may not be rushing back to Mass, many are carrying the church into the community.
The food pantry at St. Charles Catholic Church in Arlington is stocked much more frequently, said Elise Italiano, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Italiano, 30, said she sees her peers reaching out more often and lending a hand to those in need.
“I’ve really seen in my peer group that faith is not just for Sunday anymore,” Italiano said. Young people were involved in missions trips and service programs in the past, Italiano said, but there’s renewed energy. And they want everyone to know.
Pope Benedict XVI may have been the first pontiff to join Twitter, but Pope Francis uses it in a new way, drawing millions of followers.
And millennials are following the pope’s lead, updating their Facebook status while volunteering with Little Sisters of the Poor, or Instagraming selfies during a Holy Week trip to Rome or being part of the group that made #AshtagWednesday trend on Twitter this year.
“You can’t buy that kind of coverage of young people embracing the tradition,” Italiano said.
Jessie Tappel, a 29-year-old counselor who lives in Falls Church, runs Young Catholic Professionals, a group for those in their 20s and early 30s to meet, pray and perform community service activities. She said the group, which began around 2010 with about 40 members, has seen an increase in young people wanting to integrate their faith with service under Pope Francis. Since 2013, she said, the group has more than doubled, to about 100 members.
“We see Pope Francis in the media all the time, and we’re saying, ‘We’re part of that, we’re serving those in need.’ ” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen something as visual like this as we have in the past.”
For many millennial Catholics, a church and a pope attracting positive attention is a welcome change. They came of age when the only time the church seemed to make headlines was when it was involved in a sex-abuse scandal. But what some are calling the “Francis effect” — his ability to make the church resonate with the young — has proven to be encouraging.
Lent has been an especially active time for young Catholics, said Mark Gray of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
“Now, people will tweet about what they’re giving up for Lent, tweet the fish they’re eating on Friday,” Gray said. “There’s a participatory element that doesn’t take place in parishes.”
With Pope Francis’s planned trip to the United States in September, where he will become the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress and will meet with President Obama and speak to the United Nations, it is expected his popularity will grow among Catholics here.
His papacy has not inspired an increase in conversion rates, but he may be having an affect on the strength of Catholics’ religious affiliation and retention rates.
At Georgetown, Gray recently used the 2014 General Social Survey to measure Catholic Church engagement under Francis. The number of Catholics hasn’t changed since World War II, he said, but it turns out they’re not leaving as often.
“Cradle Catholics,” those who remain in the church, has steadily declined since the 1970s, but the 2014 GSS showed that the retention rate from 2012 to 2014 stayed about the same for the first time, at 66 percent. At the same time, the retention rate for Protestants and other Christians declined, falling below 50 percent in 2014 for the first time.
“We’re not seeing a massive shift, but you’re seeing negative trends turn either stable or more positive,” Gray said.
Gray found that when asked to describe the strength of their religious affiliation, 34 percent of Catholics said it was “strong,” up by 7 percent from when the same question was asked in 2012, the year before Francis was elected.
He also found a 6 percent decline in those who said their affiliation with the Catholic Church was “not very strong.” That number now stands at 56 percent.
“It’s going to take a few years to know,” he said. “Is this a trend or is this an anomaly: Has Pope Francis really shifted things?”
Chad Mizelle, 27, who converted to Catholicism just before Pope Francis was elected, said he was initially attracted to the faith because of Catholic social teaching on human dignity. He said he had been struggling on questions such as whether abortion should be allowed. Once Francis became pope, Mizelle said, he began to expand his understanding of human dignity.
“Part of human dignity is not just saying these certain acts are forbidden or you shouldn’t engage in these acts,” said Mizelle, a lawyer who lives in Arlington. “If every human being has human dignity, no one should be starving on the street. We should get rid of economic and political situations that promote these atrocities. When someone like Francis comes along saying it, there’s a ‘duh’ moment.”
This Easter he will attend Mass.