Pope Francis: Catholic Student Associations Capitalize on Papal Visit

The pope's first trip to the United States this week, promises to snarl traffic and draw online buzz, but for Catholic-student associations, it represents an opportunity to start a bigger conversation with a tough audience to reach.

The pope’s first trip to the United States this week promises to snarl traffic and draw online buzz, but for Catholic student associations, it represents an opportunity to start a bigger conversation with an audience that can be tough to reach.

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this week comes at an interesting time for the Catholic Church, as it struggles to remain relevant to young Americans.

But Francis brings with him something that isn’t traditionally equated with the papacy—millennial appeal, thanks in part to political stances that are viewed as more progressive than those of his predecessors. (You may get some eye rolls over that perception, however.)

Francis’ mass appeal is giving a boost to Catholic student organizations as they work to keep young people engaged on college campuses. The International Business Times reports that Catholic student groups have found success with membership pitches that leverage the pope’s pizza-loving, modest-living, Twitter-embracing public image.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Catholic Student Association (PCSA) found that displaying a cardboard cutout of the pontiff during a recent recruitment event drew large numbers of prospects. “People came and took selfies with him, came to talk to us,” Diana Orlandi, the association’s president, told the Times. “There were people we’d never seen before.”

Groups at several universities are sending students to the three cities where events are taking place (New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC), and organizations and parishes near the events—including PCSA and other University of Pennsylvania religious groups—are opening their doors to those who hope to see Francis in person.

“We are receiving almost 200 people to stay here specifically from Harvard and Brown, also from Denison University and University of Dallas … also from Canada and South America, all of them are college students,” Javier de la Flor, communications director of the St. Agatha-St. James Catholic Parish in Philadelphia, told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “We are offering the basement of the big church to sleep.”

While there’s clearly interest in what Francis represents as a pop-culture icon, does that enthusiasm translate to the broader Catholic Church? Some, including Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, say not necessarily, especially because the onus is on local organizations to keep that momentum moving.

Francis “has been on a baseball card now, there are pope emoji … there are all these ways he’s seeping into all these different aspects of American political and cultural life, and that’s new,” Cox told the International Business Times. “The challenge is how do you translate this transcendent popularity into commitment to the institutional church?”

U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes Pope Francis to the United States on Tuesday. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!