Rise of the Cool Catholics

Originally at: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/rise-cool-catholics#V46IUtTd5RieWtjw.99


When her twins were born six weeks premature and hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit, blogger and author Elizabeth Esther wanted an example of someone else who knew what it felt like to watch their child suffer. All Esther could think of were the words of Peter and Paul and David—and then she remembered Mary, Jesus’ mother.

She didn’t know where the thought came from, she says, but it was the lifeline she needed. It also sent her to midday Mass at a Catholic church, wanting to find out more about Mary.

“That one moment started the journey for me. I didn’t know where it would lead me,” she says.

Brantly Millegan just wanted to go deeper.

Millegan had been raised in an evangelical Christian family, but he was familiar with Catholic prayers and liturgy, having gone to Catholic schools. In high school, he began to question which church he should belong to. Later, studying philosophy at Wheaton College, he read the writings of pre-Reformation Christians—Christians who were unapologetically Catholic—for the first time.

Millegan and Esther are just two Protestants who have found themselves drawn to the Catholic faith, but they’re definitely not alone.

The Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large of America Magazine and best-selling author known for his role as chaplain of The Colbert Report—credits two figures for a recent wave of Catholic resurgence in America: Stephen Colbert and Pope Francis.

Francis, as head of the Catholic Church, has transformed its image in the three years since his election, Martin says. The pope has shown up on the covers of Rolling Stone, The Advocate and Time magazine, as well as in trending hashtags from #PopeinUS to #PopeBars. And he’s reached out to non-Catholics, too, saying during a 20/20 special on ABC, “I am at the service of all churches and all men and women of goodwill.”

“A few years ago, people’s predominant perception of the Catholic Church was sex abuse. Now, when I walk down the street in the collar, people come up to me and say, ‘I love your pope.’ That is a big change.” —Fr. James Martin

Even before the pope’s visit to the U.S. in 2015, the majority (60 percent) of American adults viewed the pope positively, including 58 percent of practicing Protestants and 55 percent of millennials, according to a 2015 study by Barna Group. More than one-third reported the pope had improved their view of Catholicism.

And the new host of CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, who has jokingly described himself as “America’s most famous Catholic,” makes it “seem cool to be an intelligent Catholic,” Martin says.

“You can’t underestimate the impact those two people had on the popular conception of the Catholic Church,” he says. “A few years ago, people’s predominant perception of the Catholic Church was sex abuse. Now, when I walk down the street in the collar, people come up to me and say, ‘I love your pope.’ That is a big change.”

Mirroring Jesus

In the beginning, Martin says, it was Francis’ simple lifestyle that caught people’s attention. In his first moments as pope, he humbly asked the crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him. He since has eschewed the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace for its guesthouse, raffled off expensive gifts to raise money for the poor and invited children for rides with him on the popemobile.

His clear words also have caught people’s ears. His favorite image of the Church is as “a field hospital after battle,” and the defining line of his young papacy has arguably been his response to a journalist who asked a question about homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”

At least, those are the things that got the attention of Paul Rock, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar.

“It’s in the living out of our faith and following Christ where Francis has been dynamic,” Rock says. “You can’t really argue with a guy who reaches out and washes feet on Maundy Thursday.”

Colbert, on the other hand, “presents a Catholicism that is thoughtful, provocative and even playful,” Martin says. He defies the popular stereotype that to be religious is to check your brain at the door.

Colbert has quoted Scripture on-air and talked in-depth about his Catholic faith in interviews. And he’s also poked good-natured fun at religion.

“The Church is an important part of my life,” Colbert said on the interview program Witness. “I would be crazy if I didn’t make jokes about it.”

“Interestingly, both [Pope Francis and Colbert] sort of mirror Jesus,” Martin says. “One, in his authenticity; the other, in a sense of humor and playfulness.”

Pope and Change?

Francis’ appeal is key to Catholicism’s sudden coolness, Martin says, because, “In no other church do you have someone so identified with the organization. The way people view the pope very much influences how people see the Church.”

But, Millegan points out, while people have been excited by Francis’ seemingly unorthodox words and actions, the pope hasn’t actually changed any doctrine. The Catholic Church still runs counter to popular culture in many ways.

“I wonder how much of his appeal to people is actually based on confusion about what he believes and what the Church teaches,” Millegan says.

That doesn’t concern Martin. That line of thinking “basically reduces the Catholic Church to those teachings,” he says. Not to mention, Francis’ change in tone, the bishops he has appointed, his approach to synods, his encyclical on the environment and the way people feel welcomed in the Church all are real changes, he says.

“People feel more included, and that’s fantastic,” he says.

The Nuns Are All Right

That sense of inclusion is something Sister Chelsea Bethany Davis says she has noticed at the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore in Chicago. The store has a life-size cutout of the pope in its front window. People stop in all the time to say, “I’m not Catholic, but I love our pope.”

“I’ll say, ‘our pope?’ Awesome! I’m glad you love our pope,” Davis says.

At 24 years old, Davis is one of those millennial nuns who have been grabbing headlines recently because they are so uncommon. A 2014 study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found there are more Catholic sisters in the U.S. who are over 90 years old than under 60.

Davis, too, had thought nuns were dead, confusing them with saints, she says. So when a sister came to speak to a class at her church, she was surprised to realize not only that becoming a nun was an option, but also that it was an option in which she might be interested.

“I felt understood. I felt like it was OK for me to bring my brokenness and messiness and suffering into that place.” —Elizabeth Esther

“I saw this religious sister for the first time, and she was so joyful and so happy,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself at 13 years old, sitting on the floor and staring up at this nun, ‘I want to be that happy when I grow up.’”

So she started spending her summers at a camp run by the Daughters of St. Paul at their motherhouse in Boston—something her parents initially thought was a “nun phase,” she says, like other little girls might go through a horse phase. She entered religious life in 2011 and made her first vows in August.

Her faith isn’t all that different than any other millennial striving to make his or her faith her own. Even before Francis was elected pope, she says, she noticed her peers wanted more than what they had seen in their parents’ lives.

“If I’m going to be true to what I believe, I have to follow through on it,” she says. “I can’t just say I’m Catholic. I can’t just say I’m a religious person, and then on the weekends, I’m not—like, Friday night I’m not Catholic, but Sunday morning I am. You can’t live that way and be authentic.”


If Mary was the concept that drew Esther to the Catholic Church, she also was the thing that initially threatened to push her away. Having grown up in a “homegrown Christian fundamentalist church,” she says she had to overcome a lot of misconceptions about Mary.

But she fell in love with Mass right away. It was so different from the services at the evangelical megachurch her family had been attending.

“To go into Mass and see a crucifix—it was so comforting, because it wasn’t happy clappy, ‘Everything is great!’” Esther says. “It was, ‘No, suffering is real, and it’s OK.’ I felt understood. I felt like it was OK for me to bring my brokenness and messiness and suffering into that place.”

The overwhelmed mom of five, suffering from postpartum depression and complications from the birth of her twins, didn’t have to pretend everything was OK, she says. She didn’t have to dress a certain way or make conversation or be anything other than what she was. She didn’t have to analyze every lyric from the hymns or every word from the priest.

She simply could be in God’s presence. She could gather around the table for the Eucharist with others, just the way they were, and let the sights and sounds envelop her.

That’s a more “tactile and sensual” way to experience Christ, Rock says, than in his Presbyterian denomination, which esteems academics and research and words. It’s communal, which he says more and more Protestants are trying to embrace.

And it’s appealing, Davis says, because it’s honest, and because “everything else in our lives right now is superficial.”

“We’re living from high to high to high, depending what your idea of high is,” she says. “I think authenticity and genuineness is what provides that deep joy, that abiding happiness we all long for.”

Esther was received into the church in 2009, followed by her husband and five children. Her second book, Spiritual Sobriety: The Promise of Healthy Faith when Good Religion Goes Bad, releases in April.

Rooted in Tradition

Millegan, his wife and four or five other classmates from Wheaton joined the Catholic Church in 2009, during their senior year. In 2014, he started the website ChurchPOP, which he calls “a BuzzFeed from a Christian cultural perspective.”

But he didn’t do either of those things because they were cool, he says.

“I interpret it more as a reaction to the very shallow evangelicalism of the last few decades—the contemporary worship movement, the seeker-sensitive movement. It was a reaction: ‘No, we actually do want something deeper,’” he says.

The Catholic Church can offer Protestants a sense of history and tradition that goes back further than D.L. Moody in the 1800s, further even than Martin Luther in the 1500s, Esther says. That includes prayers that have been prayed for thousands of years.


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