Oriana Bertucci, director of Catholic chaplaincy at Ryerson University, second from right, and Ryerson Catholics staff and students stand by their life-size cut out of Pope Francis during the Ryerson Students’ Union clubs fair in September. Photo by Michael Chen

Pope Francis’ message resonates on Canadian campuses

By 
  • February 8, 2014

TORONTO - Timothy Keslick believes Pope Francis’s small gestures are making a big impact on Canada’s university students.

“He is a great way to start a conversation with those who are Catholic and have fallen away from the Church, people who are of a different Christian denomination or those who don’t practise any faith at all,” said Keslick, student president of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Toronto’s York University.

Pre-Francis, Keslick said many students who would approach the chaplaincy’s table during promotional events often had negative misconceptions about the Church.

“But now, when they come up they say ‘that Pope Francis guy seems pretty cool.’ There seems to be a decrease in hostility.”

The so-called “Francis effect” is taking shape not only among the people in the pews, but also in the halls of higher education.

On the University of Ottawa campus, first-year student Stella Della Civita says since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, she’s noticed her non-Catholic peers have taken an interest in Catholicism and the Pope on social media. It’s now common for her to post Pope Francis-related memes and news items, only to find out that the non-believers on her Facebook are already familiar with the content she’s posting.

“They know about it before me and they don’t even follow the religion,” she said.

As director of Catholic chaplaincy at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Oriana Bertucci sees how students have taken to Pope Francis firsthand. The reaction to the chaplaincy’s life-size cut out of the Pope has been particularly good.

“People know who he is and they recognize him, whether they see him on the cover of Time or Rolling Stone,” said Bertucci. “There is an enthusiasm and an excitement.”

Bertucci has also noticed that people who have strayed from the Church are now rekindling their relationship.

“They are a little more confident to start a conversation because there’s somebody who’s making it exciting to talk about Church,” she said.

From Stephen Scharper’s perspective as an associate professor of both religious studies and environmental studies at the University of Toronto, Francis has given students a chance to approach globalization and their critique of globalization through a different lens.

“His first pastoral visit outside of Rome was Lampedusa where so many refugees are dying trying to get into Europe from North Africa,” said Scharper. “And he said that we’ve forgotten how to cry (for migrants lost at sea). And I think for students the conversation is a little different now.”

Whereas they’ve heard the socio-economic and political critique of globalization in the past, the Pope’s strong words on this “globalization of indifference” has allowed them to view it as a spiritual and moral issue.

“They now have a new take, a compassionate, spiritual take… It cuts through so much rhetoric,” said Scharper.

But it’s not just Canadian campuses that are paying attention to the new pontiff. Scharper’s son is currently attending Oberlin College in Ohio, a secular liberal arts college with a tradition of social justice.

“The students there seem to be very interested in Pope Francis and they’re finding that he’s talking about issues that are very important to them: social justice, concern for the poor and the issue of the environment.”

For Centennial College student Amanda Foster, she really feels that Pope Francis has connected with the younger generation, whether it’s through seeing him interact with people on the streets or seeing him on magazine covers.

“He’s definitely going to bring a lot of youth back to the Church which we need because that population of the Church is really falling,” said Foster.

(Santilli is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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