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 Cathedral.
But it wasn’t to take photos or marvel at the neo-Gothic interior (which is under renovation).
On Dec. 11, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”Photo: Time Magazine/EPA
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).
Unlike 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.
Aug. 29: Pope Francis takes the first papal selfie in Vatican City.Photo: L'Osservatore Romano/AP
“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 a Jesuit.
Ever since 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 adds.
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.
Young Catholics pack into an after-party for Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral last week at bar Turtle Bay. Many said they were energized by Pope Francis’ down-to-earth style.Photo: Rahav Segev
“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 closet.
July 9: Pope Francis demands that a life-size statue of him in Buenos Aires be taken down as he doesn’t want to be viewed as a celebrity.Photo: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
“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 friends.
“He hasn’t 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.”