Benedict and Young Catholics

When Pope John Paul II made his first trip to the United States in 1979, he was a 59-year-old relative newcomer. It had only been a year since he'd assumed the papacy. But in those 12 months, John Paul II had gained a reputation as a vigorous, athletic pope, known to be an avid hiker, swimmer and, in his younger days, a member of the Polish International Rugby team. Stories that he liked to jog around the Vatican gardens and lifted weights were eagerly picked up by the American media in preparation of his trip here. And he did not disappoint, leading rollicking mass celebrations at Yankee and Shea Stadiums, and parading through the streets of Washington while standing through an open sunroof in his motorcade (pre-Popemobile) waving to the gathered crowds. Handsome and charismatic, he was well on his way to cementing his reputation among young people as the rock-star pope. 

That fall, Michael Morris was a 20-year-old sophomore at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University. He'd never seriously considered becoming a priest, but after watching John Paul II visit a group of disabled children at nearby Trinity College, Morris was so moved by the pontiff that he decided the priesthood was his true calling. "I remember that a child in a wheelchair had said, 'Bless me father,' and that he bent down and said, 'No, you bless me.' I was so struck by the absolute raw humility of this vigorous, charismatic man," says Morris, who went on to seminary after graduating college in 1982 and remembers many of his fellow seminarians being equally moved. "I would say the majority of the guys I went to seminary with in the mid-1980s were inspired to do so primarily because of John Paul II."

That influence and connection with young people would come to be one the hallmarks of John Paul II's 27-year papacy. In 1984 he founded World Youth Day, the biennial gathering to celebrate young Catholics that usually draws hundreds of thousands. Though church influence and attendance in much of the Western world continued to decline during his papacy, John Paul II's tremendous appeal among young people helped to at least stem the bleeding. Now, three years after his death, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, makes his first trip to the United States at a time when the church seems to be in ever greater discord with the beliefs of American Catholics. What, if anything, can Benedict can do to appeal to a younger generation and keep them in the fold?

On the face of it, it seems not much. Benedict is in many ways the opposite of his predecessor, introverted, scholarly, timid, and he seems to posses few of the qualities that made John Paul II such a pop icon and therefore such a force for youthful influence in the 1980s and '90s. Benedict makes his American debut not as a robust, 59-year-old, but as a diminutive, aging octogenarian who takes heart medication and for years was the cardinal charged with enforcing church doctrine. Not exactly a figure to compel youthful exuberance. Benedict's first youth test came three months after assuming the papacy in 2005 when he hosted the World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. Though attended by more than 1 million people, the event was generally seen as lacking the emotional charge familiar to those led by John Paul II.

In his subsequent three years as pope, Benedict has been seen as a strict conservative who seems more willing to close ranks around a diminishing group of true believers than broaden church doctrine to include all those "lapsed" Catholics who disregard its stance on birth-control, abortion and divorce. That's not to say that his views differ so greatly from those of his predecessor. The two are, theologically, very much aligned. But when it comes to young people, image really is everything. "It's a shame because he's coming here as a fairly old man," says Father Dave Dwyer, CSP, host of the "Busted Halo" radio show on Sirius Satellite's Catholic Channel. A former director for MTV and Comedy Central before feeling the call to priesthood while attending the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver--an event he describes as "like a Grateful Dead show for the pope"--Dwyer admits that while Benedict lacks John Paul's charisma, we shouldn't discredit his ability to connect with young Catholics. "I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by who they see. Here's someone who we all thought of as this real authoritarian German guy, but one of the first things he writes about as pope is love."

On Saturday, Benedict will play host to more than 25,000 young people at a youth rally just north of Manhattan at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. Kelly Clarkson has been enlisted to warm up the crowd with a rendition of "Ave Maria"--perhaps a sign that Benedict may need a little help in energizing a crowd of kids. "Honestly, I think a lot of people are more excited to see Kelly Clarkson," admits 16 year-old Stephanie LaGumina, who will attend the rally along with 100 of her female classmates from The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, N.Y. In a group interview with four of them earlier this week, they spoke of a strong desire for Benedict to speak directly to young people but also a deep disconnect that many in their generation feel with the church, particularly with this pope. "It's important for him to see how the faith relates to us, and I'm not sure that he does," said 17-year-old Gianna Caiola. "We're the future of the faith, and if you lose us now, there will be nothing left." Added LaGumina, "I know a lot of guys who have said they would be more interested in going to seminary if John Paul was still pope."

The millennial generation of young Catholics that Benedict will be trying to connect with is a peculiar bunch, one that, while seemingly less active churchgoers, appears to be more receptive to some of the church's core practices and yearning for spiritual guidance. According to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, while only 13 percent of Catholics between the age of 18 and 30 say they attend mass every week compared to 20 percent of all Catholics in the United States, young Catholics say they're more likely than their older counterparts to look to church teachings and statements made by the pope to form their moral conscience. "The new religious longing among millennials is that they're looking for security and something of a singular truth," says Mike Hayes, author of "Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s." Hayes contends that because millennials have been deeply affected by events like 9/11, the Iraq War and Columbine shootings, all of which happened during a transformative period in their lives, they're not as interested in the community aspect of Catholicism as they are in the internal spiritual security it offers. "We've become such an individualistic culture that the relationship between me and God is what's important to them, not the longing for community that Generation X has clung to," says Hayes. "Millennials are looking for that peace in a noisy world as the central element of their faith." If that's the case, the soft-spoken Benedict stands a better chance of connecting with young people than he's given credit for.