On the night of Dec. 4, more
than a thousand eager young Catholics braved the Rockefeller
Center tree-lighting gridlock to pack into St. Patrick’s
But it wasn’t to take photos or marvel at the neo-Gothic
interior (which is under renovation).
It was to hear New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan
preside over the monthly Mass that welcomes a younger
demographic to the grand house of worship — and it was the most
popular event for young people ever hosted by the church.
“This is the largest crowd we’ve ever had,” says
Colin Nykaza, 32, director of Young Adult Outreach for the
Archdiocese of New York, which is geared toward Catholics in
their 20s and 30s. “There’s a new spirit in the church right
now. I’m hearing that young adults love Pope Francis. After
all,” he adds, “he’s taking selfies with them.”
Since Francis’ election in March, the previously
littleknown Argentine cardinal has catapulted to international
rock-star status: He has more than 3 million Twitter followers,
he just topped Facebook’s trending topics of 2013 list, and
yesterday, Time magazine named him Person of the Year (following
in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II in 1994 and Pope John
XXIII in 1962).
his aloof predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis lives in
the Vatican guesthouse (as opposed to the lavish papal
apartment) and drives himself around in a 1984 Renault (instead
of being chauffeured). In a September interview with a Jesuit
publication, he broke with conservative church positions on a
number of issues, including homosexuality. And most recently, he
admitted that before he became a priest, he worked as a bouncer
while attending college in Buenos Aires.
“He’s made Catholicism cool in 2013,” says
Domenick Canale, a 32-year-old Bronx resident who attended the
Mass at St. Pat’s.
Though faithful to his religion throughout the papacies of John
Paul II and Benedict XVI, Canale says the new pope is inspiring
people — including his own parents — to return to the church.
“Family members who went to church but have
fallen away have decided to come back,” he says.
The Rev. James Martin, author of “The Jesuit
Guide to (Almost) Everything” and a frequent guest on “The
Colbert Report,” says he is bombarded with similar tales of how
much people love Francis.
“Jaded Catholics, lapsed Catholics, fallen-away
Catholics — people from all of those groups — have told me how
much they love the pope,” says Martin, who, like the pontiff, is
the election, Martin says he’s gotten at least 100 new Facebook
followers a day. Meanwhile, a representative from St. Patrick’s
Cathedral says traffic on its Facebook page spikes whenever a
story about Pope Francis is posted.
“I was at a parish talk on Long Island, and a man
leaned over and said into my ear, ‘Forty years I’ve been away
from the church, Father. And I am back because of Pope Francis,’
” says Martin. “I think people seem more energized. People seek
me out to tell me how much they like the pope. They tell me
point blank, ‘I am coming back to the church’ or ‘I’m more
enthusiastic about being Catholic.’
“It’s called ‘the Pope Francis Effect,’ ” he
Gina DiPietro, a
28-year-old publicist at a men’s fashion startup, can identify
with the effect. She says the pope has spurred her return to the
church after a two-year hiatus.
“I would definitely consider myself a lapsed
Catholic,” says DiPietro. “I would say about two years ago, I
slipped away. I felt like I wasn’t surrounded by people who were
religious. And things were going on in the church that people
would point to and say, ‘This is why you shouldn’t go to
church.’ And they were pretty compelling [reasons].”
DiPietro, who is married to an atheist and
pregnant, always planned on raising her child Catholic. But now
she feels more at peace with her intentions.
“Now I feel like I have stronger conviction to move forward and
not question my decision. I think there are a lot of people
beside Catholics who love what he’s doing, and I think that’s
really cool,” she says.
For years, the Catholic Church has battled negative press — from
damaging child-molestation scandals to the Vatican’s perceived
inability to move with the times.
Pope Francis’ message of compassion — whether
it’s performing simple acts for the poor or urging followers not
to obsess over divisive issues such as abortion, contraception
and homosexuality — has made him an appealing figure, especially
to young people. Earlier this week, MTV’s college channel mtvU
named him Man of the Year, a title they last bestowed upon
singer Frank Ocean. (The appropriately named singer Lorde took
the top spot for women.)
In a cynical city like New York, where it’s
cooler to worship Cronuts and professional sports teams than to
practice an organized religion, the pontiff’s new approach to
the church’s teachings has helped Catholics come out of the
“In a world
where you have to defend your religion more and more, he’s given
us the freedom to come out and talk about ours more,” says
Lauren Bishop, 29, a publicist who lives on the Upper East Side.
Bishop attends Mass about once a month with
made me go to church more, but it’s made me more comfortable
with seeing that Catholicism isn’t such a distant, unrelatable
religion,” says Bishop. “When I read the story about him being a
bouncer, I thought, ‘This is so awesome.’ I love that, at one
point, he was just like us and feeling his way through.”
Canale says that he, too, believes he can
practice his faith now without feeling like he’s on trial.
“For the first time, I’m not on the defense, and
I am happy that his message is getting out.”