In honor of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States, we’re revisiting this piece from March 2014, which features the stories of three young adults who cite Pope Francis as their reason for coming back to the Catholic Church.
I actually met with my parish priest about entering RCIA classes and having my daughter baptized just weeks after Pope Francis was elected. As someone who longed to fully enter the Church, in a way I feel like I was called back at an amazing time.
Pope Francis has, for me, been a guiding light in this journey. Every morning on my way to work I listen to the Catholic Channel’s broadcast of daily Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. On most days, Mass is followed by a segment that features an English translation of Pope Francis’ homily. When Pope Francis speaks, I carry his message with me throughout the day.
As someone with a semi-Catholic upbringing (I was baptized Catholic but my family was not practicing), I always had an interest in the Church. I was always nervous about pursuing my faith because I wasn’t sure where I fit in. Pope Francis has made me feel welcome, as if I am a part of the family now.
I am so thankful that we have an amazing pope who exemplifies Jesus’ teachings. One example is a recent video of Pope Francis, which was presented to a Pentecostal convention. In the video the pope addresses the issue of disunity between different Christian denominations. As I watched, I was brought to tears. As a child, I attended many different Christian churches with friends and families. One thing that always struck me as odd was the aversion among the congregations toward other Christian denominations. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Here, Pope Francis exemplifies this by reaching out, not as the leader of the Catholic faith, but as a fellow Christian who longs for peace and unity among the followers of our one Lord, Jesus Christ. We might all practice our faith differently, but we are all united by our love for Christ.
Not only am I pursuing my faith, I am pursing higher education. In January, I started my master’s degree in history at Spring Hill College, the oldest Jesuit college in the South. I smile as I pass Pope Francis Drive on campus. I actually transferred to my current graduate program from a state university so that I could become more connected with my faith. As an educator and an intrinsically driven learner, I appreciate and respect Pope Francis’ Jesuit background and the Jesuit educational traditions. At Spring Hill the faculty follow the Jesuit tradition of “cura personalis,” that is, a care for the spiritual, social and intellectual growth of each person. I see these qualities continuously in Pope Francis.
Like many young Catholics, I feel a personal connection with Pope Francis. He understands that young adults are the future of the Church. His efforts to connect across generations, and denominations, makes the universal Church truly feel universal.
I am a 22-year-old science student, and I grew up in a Catholic home. My mother’s side of the family emigrated from Lithuania, and all of my maternal great aunts and uncles are religious sisters and priests. We attended Mass every Sunday, and I was an altar server for more than a decade at my family’s parish until I left for college.
However, from a young age, I had begun to feel increasingly conflicted about my Catholic identity. The strict gender roles at the very core of our religion were particularly difficult for me, as I was what others considered a “tomboy.” Beyond this, no matter how hard I tried, I could never quite adopt the female identity that I was expected to embrace, and this became a sore spot in my heart. When I had to choose a confirmation name, I was drawn to the male names, and was delighted when our catechist told us that we could choose any Saint, no matter the gender. All of the moments throughout my life when I struggled so much internally would begin to make sense in retrospect. I was about 12 years old when I discovered the term for what I was, but 20 when I could finally speak it aloud to myself: transgender.
When I came out during college, I didn’t know any other transgender people. I had only misconceptions as a canvas for my future. I worried that my Catholic family and friends would be devastated, and that I would be marginalized by society. A lack of space to exist fully as myself made me feel isolated, and I was afraid that the judgment of others might indeed be shared by God as well. On one particularly difficult day, I found my way into the Newman Center parish at my university during confession. I was worried I wouldn’t be welcome there, or that the priest would fear me, but this became my first time in church in three years. Taking that shaky first step toward accepting myself was my entryway back into my faith.
I was carrying a lot of spiritual pain by the time Pope Francis stepped out onto that balcony. His gentle demeanor brought me to tears because I felt like he might be someone who could love me for the way I am. When I found out that he was a Jesuit, I was overjoyed. Ignatian discernment had carried me through many difficult moments of my journey. The pope’s humanizing words about gay people made me feel like a whole person. He addressed me as something other than part of an agenda, and he showed me a love without stipulation. He has never cast painful judgment on people of sexual or gender variance during his time as pope, but has demonstrated that he sees the pain of people who are so often marginalized and condemned simply for who they are.
July 29, 2013, Andrea Quintero, a young, homeless transgender woman and devout Catholic, was found beaten to death in Rome. Andrea’s body went unclaimed for months until December, when the Church of Gesù, the mother church of the pope’s Jesuit order, stepped in to give Andrea a Catholic funeral that was attended by more than 100 people. Father Giovanni La Manna, who helped organize the funeral, said, “With Pope Francis, we have courage, we have enthusiasm. We have no excuse. We are called to open our hearts.”
It seems to me that part of the “Francis Effect” has been to remind us that no matter our differences, we belong to one another, and that a call to compassion should always come first. Pope Francis has given me the courage to take steps toward a future I never would have imagined previously. His emphasis on direct outreach to the poor has inspired me to apply to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I have also considered applying specifically to Jesuit medical schools. Pope Francis has shown me that when we bravely uphold the dignity of one person, we uphold the dignity of all, as humans who form One Body of Christ.
My journey to the Church had a lot to do with becoming a father. I started thinking about what kind of things I wanted to teach my kids about God and religion. I started listening to The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM Radio (including The Catholic Guy Show, Conversations with Cardinal Dolan, and The Busted Halo® Show) on my way home from work, and it started clicking with me. I had been on the fence for a while regarding what I wanted to do. But last year, several events, including the new pope and the birth of my second son, pushed me over the edge and I wanted to give the Catholic Church a shot. I first attended Mass December 31 and a few weeks later enrolled in pre-RCIA classes.
I was somewhat interested in Catholicism at the time of Pope Francis’ election last year, but the spectacle of electing a new pope pulled my attention toward the Church even more. I especially liked how Pope Francis remained dedicated to living a simple and humble life even after being elected pope (electing to not live in the papal apartment or wear lavish clothes). I was on the fence with Catholicism, and Pope Francis’ actions and style helped confirm my decision. I think the position of the pope, and the chain of succession all the way back to Peter helps give the Catholic Church a legitimacy that no other denomination has. I liked what I saw. I think the church has done an excellent job of keeping things simple for those that want simple, but there is also a great amount of depth to all its teaching and history that one could spend a lifetime discovering.