Millennials are obsessed with authenticity. We have been raised to explore who we are and to be that person. That might be why we can’t pass up the latest Buzzfeed quiz, whether it will tell us where we should live, what career we should have, or which Christian saint or pretty little liar we most resemble. And if authenticity is the cardinal virtue of the millennial generation, hypocrisy might be the considered the ugliest vice.
In the past year, Pope Francis has connected with people across generational, denominational, and most other lines, but his witness and his message have a special resonance for millennials. Even though many young people shy away from uttering the word “sin” out of the fear that they will appear intolerant, this pope, who has identified himself as a sinner, is connecting in a special way, and it is linked to his authenticity.
Millennials trust authority and institutions far less than previous generations, and this has translated into the “rise of the nones” and the popularity of the “spiritual but not religious” mentality. Yet something about this pope is compelling. He is reshaping this generation’s perceptions of organized religion and religious devotion, challenging the assumptions many formed growing up in the early 2000s.
This was a time when the religious right was fiercely waging a culture war and President George W. Bush was perhaps the most visible Christian in the country. It is not surprising many would come to identify organized Christianity with anti-gay animus and policies geared toward the rich.
And in their own parishes, communities, or homes, young Catholics may have witnessed a counterfeit, bourgeois Christianity, stripped of its inherent radicalism, one in which legalism displaced mercy, public reputation was valued more than personal devotion, and the purportedly devout were quick to judge others yet exceedingly tolerant when it came to their own failings.
Yet if many millennials moved away from the faith of their childhood because they were repelled by the hypocrisy, smugness, superficiality, or materialism of Christians they knew or saw, many have nevertheless remained trapped by the rampant individualism of our culture, which fosters this behavior.
The question is: Will Pope Francis be a cool dude who millennials simply admire from afar and see as affirming their existing beliefs or will he be someone that inspires us to fundamentally change the way we see ourselves and the way we live?
Will our identities be inevitably distorted by a culture of individualism, consumerism, and superficiality or transformed by a personalist understanding of who we truly are—a recognition that we are all children of God, each uniquely made, with equal, infinite worth and intrinsic, immutable dignity, called to communion with God and one another?
Lent is the perfect time to strip away the ephemeral and unreal, to free ourselves of the objects and habits that block our path to communion with God and others. It is the perfect time to become children of the light: radiating goodness, truth, and righteousness, spreading joy and hope, and bearing witness to the God of love. And by turning from the darkness, we might help others to see the Way by reflecting the light of Christ’s illuminating presence and redeeming love.
For more reflections in our Lenten series, click here.
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Image: Illustration by Angela Cox