In this photo from July, Pope Francis arrives at a Rio de Janeiro park, greeting young people attending World Youth Day.
In this photo from July, Pope Francis arrives at a Rio de Janeiro park, greeting young people attending World Youth Day.
Pope Francis is my new Catholic icebreaker. Over the past year, since the election of the relatively unknown Argentinian Jesuit to the Chair of Peter, I have had numerous conversations with young adults, both practicing and non-practicing Catholics, that have started with: "What do you think of Pope Francis?"or "Did you see what Pope Francis did?" or "Did you hear that Pope Francis said?" The trust and enthusiasm Pope Francis inspires is palpable, and this is nonetheless true for even the least religious generation in American history: Millennials.

A March 7 Pew Research Study, Millennials in Adulthood, notes "the Millennial generation is forging a distinctive path into adulthood. Now ranging in age from 18 to 33, they are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry - and optimistic about the future." What about Pope Francis is so inspiring to this generation? Pope Francis offers an authenticity that inspires institutional trust, and a renewed enthusiasm for being Catholic to a Millennial generation that is in desperate need of both.

Regarding trust, the Pew Study states that "Millennials have emerged into adulthood with low levels of social trust...just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers." For a generation raised in a college-debt laden, post-recession world, institutions have to earn trust through transparency and relevancy. Pope Francis has shown this transparency and relevance with his handling of the Vatican Bank to his willingness to break from common church practices (and security detail). His straightforward and simple teachings may not compare to the nuance and theological depth of Pope Benedict, but for a generation that constantly asks "why should I care?", Pope Francis offers concrete examples and words that penetrate the young adult heart and begin to build trust between the largest institution in world history and the least religious and most institutionally distrustful generation in American history.

Sociologist Christian Smith from the University of Notre Dame identified that one of the most significant reasons Millennials are not present in churches today, besides institutional distrust, is because of the need for emerging adults to differentiate themselves from their parents and 'stand on their own two feet.' How is differentiation possible for a generation where more than a quarter will move back home with their parents? Young adults often choose to differentiate through beliefs and practices. Making the adult choice to go to Mass or not is an easy yet significant way to begin to forge a new adult identity. For many young adults, a return to practice their Catholic faith will have to come on their own terms and in a new community than the faith of their parents (this is why college and parish young adult ministries are so essential).

What Pope Francis offers to emerging adults trying to find their own identity as Catholics is a new enthusiasm and example for how to be Catholic that resonates with the tone and issues Millennials care about: radical solidarity with the poor, a willingness to engage diversity, tweetable catechesis, and simple yet profound gestures that reach out to those on the margins. None of these characteristics are new to Francis, yet just as many in their 40s identify as "JPII Catholics," I suspect that many Millennials already see themselves as "Francis Catholics," not a sign of discontinuity with past popes, but a term of affection and personal inspiration.

Pope Francis offers Millennials a reason to trust and a renewed enthusiasm that is meant to be shared. Small signs of this taking root can already be seen with increased participation at young adult ministry events across the Archdiocese of Washington, including when more than 500 young adults gathered last summer to pray with Pope Francis and celebrate World Youth Day locally at Rio in DC. Yet the "success" of his pontificate will not be measured in successful programs, but in closeness to those in need: "What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day?" Pope Francis asked then, adding, "I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!...I want to see the Church get closer to the people."

The call to make a mess is our Millennial mission as "Francis Catholics." We must 'get closer to the people' by being agents of trust and enthusiasm to those we encounter in our workplaces and on the streets. This is the New Evangelization: to inspire trust and confidence and to be willing to share the story of our personal relationship with God. Many stories may begin with the example of mentors like Pope Francis, but to take root, they must lead to a relationship with most important person in Francis's own life: Jesus Christ.