The butterfly effect of Pope Francis

In the popular imagination, the theory known as the “butterfly effect” is often explained by using the scenario where the flap of a butterfly’s wings has a ripple effect that creates a hurricane thousands of miles away. Since the election of Pope Francis, Catholics everywhere have been experiencing the equivalent of a butterfly effect in which the simplest gestures in the world’s smallest state, Vatican City, are reverberating loudly around the globe.  

Pope Francis’ actions — eschewing the gold pectoral cross, living in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the papal apartments, and washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday — hardly qualify as grand papal pronouncements. In fact, they aren’t pronouncements at all; they are, at their core, incredibly simple acts. And yet they’ve spoken volumes to billions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  

But what about the ever-expanding percentage of young people for whom, research tells us, religion is irrelevant? What will Pope Francis’ pontificate mean to them? How will he try to speak to them? Will they bother listening? To answer those questions, it’s important to understand first how this generation communicates. 

Anyone who owns a smartphone knows that a war has been raging in our lives for quite some time. What’s at stake is an epic battle for our attention. That might seem like an ephemeral prize, trust me it isn’t. What we pay attention to determines how we structure and order our lives. What we pay attention to says an awful lot about who we are. 

For a Gen Xer (born post-1965) like myself, that struggle for my attention is something I’ve had to adapt to over years, but Millennials (born post-1980) and their younger brothers and sisters were born into this hyperconnected universe.  

They are the most media-savvy generation in history, and the competition for their attention is fierce. They understand nuances in communications the way canines can detect smells with 10,000 times the sensitivity as the rest of us. They can sniff out hypocrisy and they’re masters at understanding tone. For better and sometimes for worse, this is a transparent generation that sees the true meaning beyond the intended message.  

The triumph of Pope Francis’ message during the first few weeks of his papacy is that it’s been almost exclusively about tone, and it has been pitch-perfect. While he has spoken plenty so far, all of his words combined are overshadowed by his actions. And we now know that those sorts of actions speak especially loudly to young people.  

Researchers on American religiosity have recently identified a seismic shift that has occurred among young Christians who feel that their parents’ expression of faith focused too heavily on politics and culture war issues to the exclusion of the Gospel’s messages about poverty and justice. The data tracks beyond evangelical Christian circles to the overarching concerns of young people in general whose issues are much more aligned with the poor, education and the environment.  

Tales of the pope paying his hotel bill and riding the bus with a group of cardinals instead of the papal limousine astonish those with a more regal expectation of the papacy. But for a younger generation, it’s just consistent with the simplicity and humility of Jesus in the Gospels. In their minds, the Vicar of Christ is simply living up to his job title. 

Does that mean that a deluge of young people will make their way back into Church? Certainly a Latin pope at World Youth Day in Brazil this July will be an enormous event. Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell. The competition for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of young people is endless; so are the opportunities for self-distraction. 

One thing is certain though, if the tone of Francis’ first few weeks as Pope is any indication of the future, he will be well situated to acquire one of the most precious commodities on earth: young people’s attention. 

Bill McGarvey, owner of and former editor- in-chief of Busted Halo, is a musician and writer.