Growing Up Catholic
In the two years since he stepped out onto the balcony over St. Peter's Square and asked the world to pray for him, Pope Francis continues to grow in popularity among Catholics in the U.S.
The Pew Research Center reports that nine-in-ten America now have a favorable view of Francis, a level of support approaching the favorability of Pope John Paul II during the height of his papacy.
While reports of Pope Francis's popularity will surprise few, it might come as more of a shock to some that Francis is only now approaching the popularity of John Paul II. How can that be?
One group who isn't surprised by the reminder of John Paul's popularity: Catholic millennials.
As we now enter adulthood, many millennials -- often dubbed the "JPII Generation" of Catholics born and raised during his papacy -- understand Pope Francis as continuing a counter-cultural revolution ignited by John Paul II.
A good working definition of a millennial Catholic might be: a young adult who came to love his faith with Pope John Paul II, learned his faith with Pope Benedict XVI, and lives his faith with Pope Francis.
The revolution in America began when John Paul II chose Denver to host World Youth Day in 1993, the first time ever in an English-language nation.
He offered millennials -- most of us still children or just entering teen years -- a message so simple that we didn't realize what a departure it was from the materialistic, "me-first" society springing up around us: Don't be afraid to love each other in the radical sort of way that inspires you and those around you to become the best versions of yourselves.
This was a church that really loved us, and that we could love in return.
Then -- as we entered high school and college -- Pope Benedict XVI, the master teacher, encouraged us to go deeper into the intellectual tradition of our faith. We discovered there was more to this world than just "perspectives." There was real Truth, real beauty and real goodness, and we shouldn't settle for anything less.
Now, as we enter adulthood and experience the joys and struggles therein, Pope Francis has challenged us to pick up the mantle as leaders in the rebellion.
He's asked us to "swim against the tide" and "rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes that you are incapable of true love."
He's even told us the two areas where our efforts are most needed -- the fringes and the family.
By calling us to first serve those on the margins, both spiritually and materially, Francis inspires us to build a community where everyone is called to participate, where everyone has a voice, where all have a seat at the banquet.
And, as Francis sees it, this project begins by reigniting an appreciation for the vital role of the family in building the future. The indispensable role of marriage to "transcend the feelings and momentary needs of the couple," Francis warns us, is in a crisis.
He points to evidence of how the decline of marriage culture "is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly."
And so, he has called on millennials to be bold -- rebellious, even -- by having the courage to get married, stay married and have children. It's the family, Francis tells us, that is "the foundation of co-existence" and "a remedy against social fragmentation."
In other words, in order to build societies of love, trust, and mutual support that reach all the way to the fringes, we first need to support the building blocks of those societies. Individuals form mobs; families form communities.
We may have only had two years of Pope Francis, but for millennial Catholics, our excitement and renewed energy for the faith has been twenty years in the making.