Pope Francis leads a mass at the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican on March 14, a day after his election.
When white smoke rose from of the Vatican Wednesday, Father Jim Cuddy of Providence College ran up to ring the campus church bells.
What he called “wild pealing” drew students, faculty and staff outside to experience the next chapter in Catholic history. Cuddy’s next step was to tweet the news using the Campus Ministry’s account.
This hybrid of tradition and technology mirrors the pope’s role in bringing theology to college students. The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — is what some students see as a step forward, both in religious doctrine and social change.
“The previous two popes had a deep understanding of the young person’s struggle in the modern world and their search for truth, and I hope that Pope Francis will continue what Benedict and John Paul II started,” said Catholic University of America senior Helena Lado. “The Catholic Church isn’t old or outdated. It stands firm on its morality regardless of the secular world’s fads and trends — that’s why the Church has survived for so long.”
This long-term survival of the Catholic faith has not come without division. Cuddy said Catholics tend to separate themselves into two camps — those focused on doctrine and those who champion social justice. College students are faced with this division of conservative principles from spirituality and service, but Cuddy said he believes this pope may stop this split.
“Pope Francis is an example of a pope who is very clearly and very publicly going to say to be Catholic is not to choose either this or that, to be a Catholic is to believe in all,” Cuddy said.
But some students say compartmentalizing faith can ease the tensions brought on by such an orthodox pope. Pope Francis is expected to be extremely staunch in his opposition of homosexuality, contraception and abortion — three issues typically important to many students. In order to remain optimistic about his papacy, some cling to his history of hunger and homeless aid while disregarding other beliefs.
Elon University junior Rachel Fishman said she disagrees with his stances on some hot-button issues, but this variance shouldn’t be what dominates perception of his leadership. His platform of social justice can leave a bigger legacy, she said.
Although Fishman said Pope Francis has the potential to affect Catholics across the world, his conservative outlook might not connect with progressive college Catholics.
“I think the majority of people in college pull away from traditional Catholicism,” she said. “It’s more faith-based than traditional for our age group.”
This disconnect between spirituality and dogma doesn’t exist for some undergraduates. Casey Tisdell, a junior at Catholic University, said Pope Francis can still refocus and revamp the Church while staying true to traditional tenets.
Similarly, American University senior Ryan Hunter said Pope Francis’ leadership has the chance to impact those beyond the Catholic faith, including college students of other religions. Regardless of his platform, the pope is a figure of interfaith dialogue, Hunter said, and his leadership may still be relevant to students at American universities.
Cuddy felt this relevance Wednesday afternoon. On Providence’s campus, wide eyes greeted Pope Francis’ election, confirming the importance of the pope to students.
“The experience was really encouraging for me as a priest, being with college students when the election was announced,” he said. “To see the energy that was there, to see their faces and see the hope, that was the second great gift of the day.”
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