Like a lot of kids in the United States, I went to the school my parents sent me to, I went to church when my parents drove me there, and I believed what my parents told me was right. It also just so happens that my school, church, and beliefs were Catholic. You could say I didn't choose the Catholic life, but rather the Catholic life chose me. But after years of the Catholic life choosing me, I can confidently say Pope Francis makes me — a modern-day woman and self-proclaimed feminist — want to choose the Catholic life.
Don't get me wrong, I'd still be Catholic even if Francis wasn't the pope. I stand by the nine years I spent in Catholic school, my Baptism, and the Bible verses I've come to memorize and have had ingrained my life. But after years of church-wide scandals, outdated standards, and a diminishing reputation worldwide, Pope Francis has made all the difference for the Catholic Church. It's an early legacy that goes far beyond him getting an inspiring Twitter account. The way he has managed to modernize the once somberly intimidating Catholic faith without sacrificing its core values is what makes him exactly what the Church needs in today's world.
From kindergarten until eighth grade, I attended a small Catholic school. (No, it's nothing like Britney Spears' "Baby One More Time" video.) Although I didn't have any nuns as teachers, I did have religion class, was required to attend mass, and wore a very plaid wardrobe (peep the uniform above). I don't come from a very religious family — in fact, my mom isn't even Catholic — but I was immersed in the Catholic faith before I was too old to even understand what that meant. And I never questioned it.
When it came time for high school, my parents gave me a choice: I could go to a local Catholic high school or a secular public one. In my mind, it wasn't much of a choice: Why would I go to more Catholic school? Granted, it wasn't so much the church I wanted to get away from — I was 14 at the time and just wanted to be a "normal" kid.
Fast forward to college, where I started to realize that I could choose what and who to believe. I also started to realize how the Catholic Church fit into the larger picture of the country, and it didn't look so good for my small Catholic school back home. I realized the Church was not popular among my peers. It seemed like so many people I met had a negative view of the Catholic Church, and if they were Catholic, they weren't necessarily proud of it.
In the larger context of the country, not to mention the larger context of a large liberal university, it makes sense why the Catholic Church didn't seem popular. The Church had long promoted a strict, traditional definition of marriage and a zero-tolerance policy toward contraception and abortion. What's more, the Catholic Church seemed to have a lot of other outdated rules (women can't be priests, priests can't marry, etc.). Particularly in the United States, Catholicism has been associated with many unpopular political issues, like denying the existence of climate change and advocating for a creationist curriculum as opposed to teaching evolution in the classroom. Finally, there are the Church's internal scandals, which look bad no matter what God you believe in. If you think I'm exaggerating, just know that The New York Times has a whole topic devoted to "Roman Catholic Church Sex Abuse Cases."
While I was realizing I could choose a faith for myself, I began to question the Catholic Church. I found myself trying to explain my beliefs to others around me — even to Christians who identified with other denominations — and I'll admit I didn't always have the best answers. To be honest, most of the things I was asked to explain were things I had never thought about, or at least not since my Catholic school days. As a result, I started going to other church services, which were mostly Methodist (I'll admit that I didn't stray too far from what I knew), and learning about other faiths. Fortunately, it was also during this time that Pope Francis began his papacy.
I say all of this to sympathize both with my Catholic peers and with others who hold a negative — or apathetic — view of the Catholic Church. In the modern world we live in, it hasn't always been easy to choose Catholicism.
I also say all of this because I don't think I'm alone in this experience. Although Catholicism remains one of the largest religions in the country, it has lost a lot of ground in recent years. Pew Research Center reports that from 2007 to 2014, the population of Catholic Americans has dropped by 3 percent. That doesn't sound like much, but that represents millions of Americans. Mass attendance has dropped by almost 20 percent in recent decades. There's a shift occurring in the country — and if recent scandals have anything to do with it, then Pope Francis may be able to do something about it over the course of his papacy.
Along with a warm smile and a holy Twitter account, Pope Francis has brought peace of mind to Catholics like me in the way that he has literally preached tolerance and interpreted the teachings that we've all grown up with. In 2013, just a few short months into his papacy, Pope Francis took steps toward welcoming gays into the faith by saying:
If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?
In June, he put the Church's climate change issue to rest by identifying it as a legitimate problem and stressing its urgency.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.
In August, despite his pro-life stance, Pope Francis announced that abortion can be forgiven as a sin. As for those ugly sex abuse scandals, they aren't over, but Pope Francis has created a new court within the Church to judge leaders who commit such sins.
What makes me even more comfortable with choosing to identify with the Catholic Church under Pope Francis is that he has the support of other Catholic leaders. He was elected in 2013 by a collection of cardinals (the Church's senior leaders), who also appreciated his modern approach to the faith and his ideas for taking the Church into the future.
Ultimately, it's hard to say that Pope Francis has solved any of the Church's major issues entirely, but he has taken significant steps in the right direction. (Plus, there's still time to work on everything; he's got the rest of his life ahead of him.) As a modern Catholic who has struggled to balance a traditional faith within a forward-thinking context, I look at the pope as a person whose version of Catholicism I can get behind.
Images: Alex Gladu (3)