With Pope Francis’s history-making visit to the U.S., many Americans have succumbed to a bad—albeit probably temporary—case of Pope Mania. And in typical American fashion, it seems a lot of enterprising people (sinners and saints alike) are trying to cash in on the Pontiff’s holy visit, merchandizing everything from cookies that feature Pope Francis’s smiling face to smiling Pope Francis bobbleheads, not to mention the glut of moment-by-moment coverage of the Pope’s three-city American tour on broadcast and cable television.
Those demonstrations of American fanatic capitalism at its best (or worst) aside, for the truly faithful and the merely curious, Pope Francis’s first-ever stateside trip represents more than just a chance to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff riding along in the Popemobile. As spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and as sovereign of the state of Vatican City, agenda items on Pope Francis’s U.S. tour are inevitably religious and political, as evidenced by the Pope’s precursor visit to Cuba. Cuban President Raúl Castro reportedly took the unprecedented step of allowing journalists and citizens to share their experiences and impressions of the Papal visit via social media channels, which played right into the social media-savvy hands of the 266th pope of the Catholic Church.
While Pope Francis’s message of doing good and his commitment to helping the poor may resonant with Millennials, a generation that defines itself in part by a strong belief in social justice, some of the Pontiff’s more conservative religious doctrines may be falling on deaf ears when it comes to progressively inclined Generation Y. More than any previous generation at the same age, a growing body of research confirms that Millennials are considerably less religious and less likely to be affiliated with an organized religion. Furthermore, studies have shown that Gen Y hasn’t replaced religiosity with spirituality, as some Gen Xers and Baby Boomers previously did in their youth before aging into more religious ideology and views.
For the past decade, the Catholic Church in America has been experiencing a “demographic free-fall,” shedding adherents faster than any other mainline Protestant denomination. According to a report by Pew Forum, the number of American Catholics has decreased by 3 million since 2007, with Catholics now representing approximately 20% of the total U.S. population, compared to nearly 24% in 2007. This branding and communications crisis hasn’t gone unnoticed by Vatican City. In fact, Pope Francis has reportedly embraced technology and social media since his inception in 2013 and has deftly utilized social media channels like Twitter and Instagram as well as an official Pope app, and even Pope emojis and Google Hangouts to spread the word of the gospel.
But will Millennials pay attention to the Pontiff’s good words? In the immediate aftermath of Pope Francis’s U.S. tour, American may have a renewed interest in the Catholic Church, but whether or not Gen Y will have a sustained interest in discovering or renewing their faith is yet to be seen.
There is a glimmer of hope for the church: according to Pew Research Center, despite the decline in Gen Y’s overall religiosity, they remain fairly traditional in their beliefs in the existence of heaven, hell and miracles—beliefs that closely parallel the views of older, more religious people today. And although young adults collectively have lower rates of belief in God than older adults, the number of Millennials who say they believe in God with “absolute certainty” is similar to the rates of Gen Xers a decade ago. Which means Pope Francis might just be able to selfie and tweet himself and his message into the hearts and minds of Millennials, especially as they grow older.