On the plane home from World Youth Day, reporters asked Pope Francis what he was carrying in his black briefcase. The unorthodox Pontiff responded that it was a book about St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom he is devoted. The answer may be a disappointment to those who joked that it was the secrets to the atomic bomb, but for Catholics and critics alike it is dynamite.
Saint Therese of Lisieux is one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved and popular saints. She claims Dorothy Day, Edith Piaf, numerous Popes, and other thought-leaders as her devotees. Pope John Paul II declared her to be a Doctor of the Church, an authority on Catholic theology, in 1997. A basilica built in her honor is now the second most visited pilgrimage site in France.
To top it off, St. Therese of the Child Jesus never lived to see her twenty-fifth birthday. Her crowning theological work, Story of a Soul, is mainly the diary of a twenty-two year old struggling with adulthood. For a Pontiff attempting to reach today’s millennials, a generation facing a similar struggle, Francis’ reading material could be a game-changer.
A defining characteristic of the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2000, is a ferocious desire to make a difference in some way or another. The generation was raised with an emphasis on both academic and extracurricular achievement, and has watched many of their peers skyrocket to fame and fortune relatively quickly via social media start-ups, or reality TV shows. A June survey from Telefonica found that a whopping 40% of millennial believe they can make a lasting global impact.
Unfortunately, the current economic recession has left few opportunities to do so, deeply discouraging many young people. A February 2013 study by the American Psychological Association found that millennials report the highest rates of depression and anxiety out of any other age group. The study attributes this astonishing figure to lack of employment opportunities and the group’s high expectations for individual achievement.
Pope Francis addressed the Church’s need to comfort the saddest generation en route to World Youth Day. Speaking with reporters, Francis said that the global recession "does not make things easy for the young people…. We run the risk of having an acceleration of a generation that has never had work and from work comes the dignity of the person, which is the power to earn one's bread.”
Unfortunately for Francis, millennials have also grown up in a popular culture that consistently stigmatizes the Church and drowns out its messages. CNN blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote that millennials leaving Christianity in general because they perceive it to be “too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” The Catholic Church’s many hospitals, social justice initiatives, and schools cannot seem to cut through the chorus of late night comedians, Madonna music videos, or episodes of the Bill Maher show. For Catholicism, the list of negative perceptions is longer, including it is anti-women, a breeding ground for pedophilia, and an anachronistic institution relate to today’s youth.
Although she lived a hundred years ago, Therese Martin of Lisieux, France could certainly relate to the desire to make an impact under less than favorable circumstances.
“I should like to accomplish the most heroic deeds.... I would travel to every land to preach Thy name,” wrote the then 22-year-old, living in a time where nuns did not leave the convent and when medicine could not address her fatal illness.
“I have always felt, in comparing myself with the Saints, that I am as far removed from them as the grain of sand.”
Therese could also relate to the clichéd religious sentiments of many millennials, who often shy away from “traditional” religions but remain highly spiritual. She felt that some religious traditions were too complicated for her.
“I have not the courage to look through books for beautiful prayers. I only get a headache because of their number”
According to Therese, Catholicism offered a way that anyone could make a lasting on the world no matter how powerless or small. By acting out of love and kindness in every-day deeds as Christ did, anyone could be great. She wrote that heaven was not filled with saints and Homeric figures alone, but also with everyday people who love, and used this mantra to overcome mean girls in the convent, doubt surrounding her choice of profession, the death of her parents, and her own fatal illness. Pope John Paul II praised her “Little Way” as the “Gospel path of holiness for everyone.”
Ironically, “the little way” is often echoed in a culture, which simultaneously demonizes Catholicism. The popular millennial lunch box of choice, a Lululemon shopping bag, has the word “Love” all over it. In the September issue of Glamour Magazine, 29-year-old Olivia Wilde tells other millennials to focus on the kind of person you are rather than your achievements.
“I'd rather be a good person who makes people happy.”
So if Pope Francis carries around a book about a saint who sounds a lot a Hollywood ingénue or the back of a Lululemon shopping bag, what does he carry exactly?
For starters, he carries an explanation of much of his unorthodox papacy to date, a papacy in which simplicity trumps ceremony. He also carries a hopeful message to youth that anyone can make a difference, even a twenty-four year old on her deathbed in a remote French convent.
More poignantly, he carries a reminder to critics, whose tunnel-vision eyes see only the white-haired, all-male priesthood, that not all church authorities are elderly men. As Doctors of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux, Therese of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, and other female saints all hold tremendous influence over Church theology. After all, Christianity is based on a man in his early thirties, and a key differentiator between Catholicism and other Christian religions is special place of a woman, Mary.
Most significantly, Pope Francis carries a way that the Catholic Church can cut through stereotypes and offer meaning and empowerment in today’s world, without departing from its core values. It is a path based on love of faith in God that is timely at it has ever been and a bold statement a two thousand and thirteen-year old Catholic Church is not an anachronism.
After all, St. Therese never found the then eighteen hundred and ninety-seven year old institute too tired for her: “Souls that are on fire may never rest.” It is not the secret to the atomic bomb, but perhaps something more powerful.