Addressing a crowd of 50,000 gathered outside of the U.S. Capitol, Pope Francis made his usual request to the crowd: “Pray for me.” What he said next, though, was truly remarkable. “And if there are among you any who do not believe, or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way.”
When he mentioned nonbelievers, I was sure he was going to say next that he hoped nonbelievers would be inspired—that they would reconsider. But he didn’t—he simply asked those who do not believe to wish him well. Even the most cynical agnostic can see the beauty in that.
Though still wedded to Catholic doctrine, Pope Francis has become known as a modern Pope. In an individualistic culture that encourages people to be who they are and not just what their society asks them to be, that means being inclusive. “Who am I to judge?” he has said of Catholic gays and lesbians. He’s said that the church doesn’t need to be talking about the “same issues” of homosexuality and abortion all the time.
But this most recent statement of inclusivity is the most stunning and the most modern yet. Pope Francis is including not just religious believers who have done things or lived their lives in ways the church has historically condemned. He is now including—or at least reaching out to—those who don’t believe at all.
It’s a sign of how tuned in he is to the reality of the modern world. The Pope began his speech by blessing the children, and in the U.S. those children are increasingly growing up without religion. In our analysis of four large studies of adolescents, my co-authors and I found that 1 out of 5 high school students never attends religious services, up from 1 out of 10 in the early 1980s. Teens have less respect for religious institutions, are less likely to want to donate to religious organizations, and are less likely to say that religion is important in their lives. Young adults are even more disconnected, with a third not affiliating with religion. The Millennials—whom I call Generation Me—are the least religious generation in American history.
In 2009, President Obama was the first President to mention “nonbelievers” in an inaugural address. But politicians have to be inclusive—they want votes, and nonbelievers are an increasing number of American voters. The Pope has no such mandate.
The Pope’s words speak to his incredible generosity and inclusivity. But they also point toward the decline of religion’s influence. If the trends continue, future Popes might be out of a job.