ROME — The front page of Rolling Stone Italia flashes white and yellow this month, flaunting the Vatican colors in the busy newsstands. Pope Francis looks smilingly from the canary background, raising his thumb, enticing the reader to escape the busy streets to the content within.
Bright pink letters read: FRANCIS, POP POPE
Early in his pontificate, Rolling Stone USA put Francis on the cover. Written in bold: “the times they are a-changin,’” a reference to a famous Bob Dylan standard, as the pope seemingly waved the ‘Old-Ways’ goodbye.
But what makes Pope Francis such a popular choice for magazines? The Rolling Stone had never had a pontiff on its cover before, not even the media-friendly John Paul II.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘pop’ stands to mean, “enjoyed by many people and easy to understand.” Many would say Francis easily fits the bill, but his appeal is especially strong among one demographic cohort: Millennials.
According to the Rolling Stone 2016 reader profile, nearly 50 percent of the magazine’s audience is between the ages of 18 and 34. Pope Francis, with his more than thirty million followers on Twitter, gives Twenty-one Pilots – whose song “Stressed Out” was allegedly a “Millennial Anthem” – and their two and a half million followers, a run for their money.
The Misunderstood Generation
The post WWII baby boomers, born between the late 40s and the early 60s, who went to Woodstock with some never really returning, were considered entitled and narcissistic. Generation X, the “latchkeys” who grew up without adult supervision, were born between the early 60s and late 70s, rolled their eyes at their self-indulging parents and were called “slackers.”
Millennials, born between the early 80s and 2000s and left with nothing to believe in by their disenchanted parents, are the “snowflakes.” Allegedly they were raised to believe they are unique, they are hypersensitive and search for solace in their luminous and interconnected screens.
The boomers ended up becoming the efficient executors and beneficiaries of the economic expansion of the West. Opinion on Gen Xers has also shifted, when they became the “greatest entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history,” according to a 1997 article in the Harvard Business Review.
Admitting that only time can tell who these Millennials actually are, if anything, few have been able to address this misunderstood generation as capably as Pope Francis.
Millennials pray less, attend mass less and overall believe less than previous generations, according to a 2016 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center. But the “snowflakes” display a belief in life after death and in heaven, hell and miracles similar to that of older people, Pew surveys show.
“I think you see higher levels of these things among Millennials because they require very little in the way of institutional involvement,” said Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University.
Francis’s unique communicative method speaks to Millennials in a very special way through his “realness,” his anti-establishment persona, his focus on mercy as an all-inclusive practice, and his savvy use of technology.
“Keeping up with” Pope Francis
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio walked out to the crowded St. Peter’s Square after the 2013 conclave and shyly uttered: “Fratelli e sorelle, buonasera!” (brothers and sisters, good evening!) a star was born. Not only did the crowds go crazy but papers and media agencies around the world introduced a Pope of the People.
“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person,’’ Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2014.
Bergoglio was a bouncer in a bar back in Argentina, had a girlfriend, enjoys music and soccer. All these things make him relatable, “real.” He takes selfies, lives in the worst (and only) hotel in the Vatican and could easily win the “scruffiest pope ever” award.
But this is not enough for Millennials, accustomed to the gimmicks of public personalities and hostile to institutions, especially the Catholic Church.
What really makes the pope ‘pop’ is his reality TV star ability to make even the most remote circumstances seem relatable, that has some older Catholics feeling a sense of trepidation but Millennials begging for more.
The rebel pope
More than 80 percent of Millennials believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few big companies, a paper by researchers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais finds. Bernie Sanders, the paladin of the 99 percent, won two million votes from people under 30, more than Clinton and Trump combined.
This generation could not have made it clearer that they have little to no faith in corporations, the government or churches.
“Millennials didn’t grow up trusting these institutions,” Hout said. “And these institutions have let people, particularly young people, down.”
Considering that Millennials entered the workforce in and around 2008, in circumstances comparable only to those of the Great Depression, no surprise there.
“My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost,” @Pontifex tweeted back in 2013.
My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 2, 2013
The pope spared no punches when addressing the “hidden” and “malicious” resistance within the Vatican curia. Francis has referred to money as “the dung of the devil” and has criticized the free market, capitalism and trickle down economics in no kinder tones.
By standing up against the man while still remaining relatable, Francis has become the rebel that Millennials love to love.
The “liberal-ish” agenda
“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” Pope Francis told reporters on a flight back from Brazil in 2013. Regardless of the context and interpretation of the statement, the message that endured was that of openness toward homosexuality within the Catholic Church, especially to Millennials.
Almost twice as many young adults say homosexuality should be accepted by society compared to previous generations, according to a 2007 Religious Landscape Survey.
But that is not all Millennials care about. A 2016 Global Shapers survey by the World Economic Forum, which interviewed more than 26,000 Millennials from 181 countries, showed that 45.2 percent of respondents cited climate change and the destruction of natural resources as their primary concern.
In his encyclical Laudato Si and in many of his public appearances, Pope Francis has spoken out in defense of the planet and on our duty as its protectors.
The tech-savvy pope
In a 2014 statement Pope Francis referred to the Internet as a “gift from God” and went on to invite the faithful to “boldly become citizens of the digital world.”
Though not the first pontiff to use Twitter (Benedict XVI took care of that) he was the first to engage in the filtered world of Instagram with currently 3.6 million followers.
But in a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that young people who frequently use social media had three times higher odds of experiencing social isolation.
Pope Francis has spoken out about the importance of not finding love or happiness in our devices and even asked if we are as mindful of bringing the Bible with us as we are to have our cell phones close at all times.
One has to consider that most Millennials don’t follow the inner workings of the Vatican or the complicated dynamics of the Roman Curia. But Pope Francis has been able by wisely using the instruments at his disposal to make Millennials his allies.
Considering that 90 percent of Millennial Italians believe that Francis has great communicative skills, is likable (80 percent) and inspires trust (70 percent) – according a study by the Giuseppe Toniolo Institute – no wonder Rolling Stone Italia wanted to jump on the popularity train.