"Dear Pope Francis.…” Thus began many of the letters that were carefully placed in a blue binder in preparation for transcontinental travel to Rome. Others opened with the salutation: “Your Holiness,” “Most Holy Reverend Pope Francis,” “Querido Papa Francesco,” “Queridísimo Santo Padre” or “Caro Papa.” Some arrived on letterhead bearing the name of a Catholic school, while others were handwritten on polka-dot notecards or rainbow-colored paper.
The letters, in all their colorful variety, appeared in the mailbox of the Saint Mary’s College Center for Spirituality in response to an invitation issued to millennial women by peers at this Catholic women’s college in Notre Dame, Ind. The initiative was inspired by the article “A Lost Generation?” published in America in 2012 by the sociologist Patricia Wittberg, S.C. One-third of millennial women baptized into the Catholic Church in the United States, she wrote, no longer find a spiritual home in Catholicism. Millennial men have left the church too—but not to the same degree, possibly making this the first generation in the history of Western Christianity in which fewer women are active in the Catholic faith than their male peers.
The disaffiliation from the Catholic Church of so many young women is a loss both to the church and to those who have departed. The church is without the gifts and charisms that these young women could contribute to the life and mission of the body of Christ, and they, in turn, are without the sacramental, liturgical and corporate life that could be the church’s gift to them. Moreover, the loss of so many millennial women bodes ill for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. Traditionally, Sister Wittberg notes, women have taken primary responsibility for handing on the faith to their daughters and sons. If young women continue to leave Catholicism, she cautions, the church will likely lose not only these young women but also the following generation of their children.
What could students active in campus ministry at a Catholic women’s college do in response to this? Moved by Pope Francis’ humility and evangelical joy, they decided to write to the pope and wagered that other young women (ages 15–30) might be inspired to do likewise. In an invitation published in America and circulated through the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, they invited their peers to join them in sharing their love for the Catholic tradition and ideas that could contribute to the church’s outreach to young women. Two hundred and twenty-five Catholic women from 16 high schools, colleges and universities responded. They wrote of the significance of the Catholic faith in their lives, challenges they face as young women in our culture and means to enhance ecclesial outreach to their generation.
Body of Christ and Sacrament of Love
The letters penned to Pope Francis give voice to the beauty, truth and goodness that young women find in the Catholic tradition. “On the day of my confirmation,” wrote Kate, “I was sure I was a Catholic. As I sat in my pew with my older sister (who was my sponsor), I looked up and was so touched by the beauty of the church and the wonderful music that I almost cried. I truly felt God’s love and was inspired to carry out my duties as a Catholic.” Haley composed the poem “My Church, My Home” that expresses the strength she finds through Eucharistic communion in the body of Christ. “The church,” shared Anna, “offers salvation in Christ, forgiveness, and most of all love. Not the type of love society wants, but a genuine love…. We need strong Catholic women to speak out today, and tomorrow and the next day.”
The young writers speak of the church as a family that reaches out with compassion to others. They cherish the moral and spiritual formation they have received, the church’s defense of life and human dignity, the Catholic social tradition and the work of justice and peace-making. “I find the church’s focus on the poor inspirational,” wrote the university student Mary Jane, “and it has motivated me to use my knowledge to serve others. I hope to graduate in nutrition and work in a third-world country making a difference.” Many of the letters came from Catholic high schools and colleges for women. “I am fortunate to go to a Catholic women’s school,” wrote Emma, “where empowering young women to go out in the world as confident leaders is a major objective. More girls and women need this opportunity.”
Challenges Facing Young Women
The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops affirmed in 2012, includes among its aims outreach to baptized Catholics who “have drifted from the church and Christian practice.” This drifting, Pope Francis explains in “The Joy of the Gospel,” takes place amid the crisis of communal commitment that is evident in secularism, relativism, vast global economic inequality and the violence that this spawns, an economy that treats human beings as disposable commodities, the globalization of indifference, the abrogation of religious freedom and the weakening of family bonds. In this context, he continues, youth often feel “a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood.”
It is evident in the letters to Pope Francis that some of the consequences of the crisis of communal commitment have gendered dimensions. Economic inequalities in the United States, for example, are keenly felt in many women’s lives. “Women are still discriminated against in the workforce,” writes Grace. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a wage gap in the median incomes of men and women persists. Moreover, families headed by a single adult are more likely to be headed by a woman, and almost 31 percent of households headed by a single woman were living below the poverty line in 2012.The United States is also one of the few Western nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave for women who work outside the home. “It tore me apart to leave my seven-week-old son in day care with a stranger,” writes Teresa. “But without my income we cannot pay the bills.”
Salient in letters from high school and college women are the challenges posed by media culture and sexual mores. The music, movies, magazines, television and websites that fill the lives of youth today routinely sexualize women. Sexualization ascribes value only to physical sexual attractiveness and objectifies a human person as a thing for another’s use. “Women,” Anna explains to Pope Francis, “are objectified in all the social media—turn our bodies into beer cans or have us sit half-naked on cars.” Jordan writes of popular music lyrics: “We are spoken of as property that men can just reuse and throw out again whenever they feel like it. I just don’t understand why we are thought of in this way by the media, when we for generations have been the people to care for others and run the families.” Claudia reiterates: “Women are called bad names in songs.”
In a process that psychologists describe as “self-objectification,” the sexualized media teach girls to think of their bodies as objects of the desires of others. A study by the American Psychological Association found that the consequences for girls and young women include impediments to the ability to concentrate and impaired mental performance, the undermining of confidence in one’s own body, feelings of shame or anxiety, eating disorders harmful to physical health, low self-esteem, depression and the internalization of the presumption that women are sexual objects and that physical attractiveness is the center of a woman’s value. “Today’s media culture,” Emma writes to Pope Francis, “makes it difficult for me to accept myself as God’s good creation made in the divine image and likeness. Strong social pressure puts to the test my morals and standards. As a woman, I face degrading expectations, as if my purpose were to please men. In these situations, I sometimes find myself questioning: where is God in all this?”
Media images establish ideals of female beauty based entirely on physical appearance that are impossible to achieve and undermine young women’s sense of their God-given goodness. Phrases like “‘20 pounds lighter,’ ‘the glow look,’ ‘look younger in a week,’ are words pounded into women’s heads,” Kelli explains to Pope Francis. “Appearance is all that matters in the world of the Internet and media. We forget that we are all made in the image of God.” Grace shares: “I once struggled with body image. My struggle felt like it lasted forever. The urge to become someone who I was not was so strong.... I would see girls and compare myself to them, usually beating myself up for not looking as pretty or skinny as them. The amount of self-hate I had for myself was so terrible.” The attempt to emulate media models, Ashley adds, can lead to the eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia or to consequences even more tragic: “We are constantly pressured by each other and the rest of society to fit an unachievable description of perfection. Too many girls have been driven to self-harm, starvation, or even suicide because of the emotional torture they experience. This epidemic needs to stop.”
The media’s sexualization of human personhood no doubt contributes to the hook-up culture at many colleges and universities. The term “hooking up” refers to a sexual encounter of two persons who may be only briefly acquainted and anticipate no future relationship. “Today women are expected to adhere to the party stereotype,” Kaitlyn explains to Pope Francis. “What this means is that women are expected to dress a certain way to get a man’s attention. Men on college campuses feel entitled to sex. I am writing to you as a 21-year-old, college senior, who has watched many women degrade themselves to fit in and feel loved and accepted at parties. I want women to feel the love of Jesus Christ.” Lisa writes: “I am so sad to see so many of my friends giving in to the hook-up culture because they don’t recognize their own worth.... We need you to remind young men how to treat us with respect.”The hook-up culture is enabled by alcohol, and interviews with college students indicate that it fulfills the heart’s true desires of neither women nor men. Studies correlate this culture with depression, sadness and low self-esteem. Its consequences can include sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and abortions. Forty-four percent of abortions in the United States are performed on college-age women.
Lack of support for children conceived in difficult circumstances is another challenge for some young women. Project Rachel, the Catholic Church’s ministry to women who suffer grief and depression after losing children through abortion, reports that the women they serve were told by boyfriends or husbands that “they weren’t ‘ready for fatherhood.’” Lucy writes to Pope Francis on behalf of women in such circumstances: “What of mothers who were pressured to have an abortion and instead choose life? What can be done to help and support them and their children?”
Many of the letters lament the sexual violence endemic in our culture. “We shouldn’t have to feel scared to walk out into our own neighborhoods,” Kirsten writes to the pope, “but we have heard and experienced stories about the sexual harassment, all the violence.” According to one study, 83 percent of girls in secondary schools experienced sexual harassment from peers. According to federal statistics, one in five women in the United States have been the victim of rape or attempted rape. Among the women reporting rape to the National Women’s Study, 22.2 percent were between 18 and 24 years old when the rape occurred, 32.3 percent were between the ages of 11 and 17, and 29.3 percent were under 11 years old. Research indicates that sexual violence has a devastating impact on both emotional and physical health.
It the midst of a culture in which “the line between right and wrong is nearly erased” (Anna) and “no one has any respect for each other” (Julia), Catholic parishes are described in some of the letters as places in which young women find shelter, acceptance, strength and hope. “My parish,” Emma shares, “is my safe haven, my escape from situations that threaten my moral standing. The church is my source to reach God.... I always leave Mass refreshed and ready to face the world the way God would want me to. I thank the Catholic Church for being there when I need it so desperately.” Colleen writes: “I love the church for being a symbol of hope amid a broken world. I also love the church because it is made up of broken people seeking peace and moving toward perfection.... I find sustenance in the gift of the Eucharist and am comforted and made more whole by the sacramental nature of the church.”
The young women welcome Pope Francis’ call in ”The Joy of the Gospel” for “a more incisive female presence in the church” and their proposals in this regard include greater participation by women in visible lay ecclesial ministries and lay leadership. “We bring many special gifts to the church,” writes Julia, “such as love, happiness, and energy!” To enhance the church’s outreach to young women, they recommend mentoring programs for young women (and young men), programs in which youth can support one another in living a Catholic sexual ethic when there is intense peer pressure to do otherwise, homilies that speak to the experiences of young women and affirm their God-given dignity, religious formation that uplifts female role models in Scripture and tradition, ministries of healing for survivors of sexual assault and support groups for mothers and other young women. “Everyone and everything around us tends to push us down,” writes Anya. “We need the leaders of our community to build us back up again.”
The young writers offer constructive proposals for the evangelization of our culture, including a national Catholic initiative for reform of the media, a Catholic social media platform, a Catholic campaign for stronger national standards for maternity and paternity leave, church initiatives to reduce the levels of sexual violence in our society and an “image and likeness” line of fashionable clothing for young Catholic women that is not too tight or revealing, to name a few of their ideas. The authors are young leaders ready to act. “We must reach people through activities and communities that give them joy and purpose,” writes Colleen. “We are a generation who is so enthusiastic to do something meaningful; we simply need to be asked.”
Pope Francis personally received the bundle of letters together with multiple pieces of artwork and a liturgical stole hand-stitched by the students of Saint Ursula Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio. These gifts were presented in a general audience with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Carol Ann Mooney, Saint Mary’s College president, Kristen Millar, a Saint Mary’s student, and Grace Urankar, a 2014 alumna. “We are a diverse group,” Grace explained to Pope Francis, “with many experiences, hopes, dreams, failures, losses, but with so, so much love. It is not out of hurt, fear or distress that I approach you. Rather, I only want to express to you the great love I have known and received. I hope you will continue to encourage us all to love more fully, more openly and more radically than ever before.”
Although the letters were written for the pope, the voices of the young women call all of us to engage constructively the realities they describe. “I sincerely thank you, Pope Francis, for your role in the Catholic Church,” Jordan’s letter concludes. “You inspire teenage women every day. We hope the Catholic Church hears our petitions concerning women in our society, and if you have time please write back. Pope Francis, I know we can do this. Imagine what we can do if we all work together.”