Culture

The yassification of Pope Francis: Gen Z want nice guys in charge

5 Mins read

‘Why is Pope Francis all over my Instagram feed?’, you might be wondering. A new group of supporters have found favour with the pontiff and his modern approach to a traditional role.

‘BLESS THE GAYS 💅🙏 ’. That’s not a quote from RuPaul, Lady Gaga, or Elton John. According to satirist and socio-political activist Saint Hoax, it’s an apt paraphrasing of Pope Francis, who recently approved blessings for same-sex couples.

Take it with a pinch of salt, or take it with none, but the Catholic Church’s current head has dominated recent media coverage for leaning into the unexpected.

From being outspoken on climate change issues, his comments condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza, to declaring wine as “a gift from God”.

In Saint Hoax’s Instagram carousel, dedicated to Pope Francis, one slide read, ‘Me getting ready to be blessed by the Pope’. It shows a miniature bishop figurine, wearing a crown and halo, having a treatment at the hairdressers, whilst Madonna’s hit tune, Vogue, blasts in the background. 

‘THE POPE IS ON A MAJOR SLAY STREAK THIS WEEK’, read another slide.

In light of all this, it seems Pope Francis has (willingly or not) been yassified. 

‘Yassification’ is a term that originated in 2020, in reference to AI editing software that applies several beauty features to a photo in order to enhance it. Take last year’s viral photoshopped image of the puffer-wearing Pope as a meek example.

Since then, yassifcation has come to mean much more; Know Your Meme defines it as “the process of something becoming more LGBTQ+ adjacent”, according to Refinery29 it “means to make something substantially better”.

Viral AI-generated image of Pope Francis in a white puffer jacket
The image of Pope Francis in a white puffer-jacket went viral [Twitter/Reddit/Midjourney]

NBC News says it “refers to beautifying something, typically something that is unappealing or heteronormative”, and our trusty consultant, Urban Dictionary, simply states, it’s “the act of making someone or something gayer or more girlboss.”

While no-one is claiming Pope Francis has become any “gayer”, he certainly appears to be on a journey of transformation –beautification even – taking an institution many see as outdated and exclusionary, and opening the door.

The younger generations have, in turn, opened the door to him, inviting him into their world of memes, internet slang, and AI. 

These online reactions to the Pope are not simply about Gen Z’s inability to take important issues seriously or use humour as a coping mechanism. Instead, it speaks to something bigger – the younger generation’s longing for a compassionate hero.

With recent data showing that one in three people aged 18-24 experience mental health problems, we can’t ignore the role that the current socio-political landscape has had on this.

In an increasingly politically hostile world of PutinNetanyahu, and another anxiety-inducing round of Trump vs. Biden, Pope Francis’ yassification comes both as a form of escapism and a tentative, satirically-disguised hope.

In 2020, St Mary’s University reported, in Britain “55% of 18-29 year olds see Francis’ papacy as a change for the better”, compared to only “9% seeing it as a change for the worse” – the remaining 36% were ‘neutral’ or ‘didn’t know’.

Rosa, President of Oxford University’s Newman Society, suggests the Pope’s rising appeal amongst students stems from his tolerant and non-judgemental nature.

“I was raised Catholic and then I hit my mid-teens and discovered politics … feminism, so all of a sudden, it didn’t quite fit. How do I mesh all these separate things together?

“Pope Francis was really helpful in terms of knowing I still had the right to be Catholic when I was in my political experimental phase. It’s about being able to see that Catholicism isn’t just one thing, and there was room in the Church for people who haven’t been seven-generations-of-Latin-Mass-attending.”

The balance between tradition and a Church that is aware of the needs of the modern population is not an easy one to strike. But, like Rosa, many young people who felt anxious about being excluded from the Church have found they are able to reclaim that religious space for themselves, under Pope Francis’ leadership.

“Everyone’s looking for role models sometimes” Canon David Hopgood, explains, “They see him as someone who’s authentic, compassionate, and speaks their language.

“By not being so dogmatic, he doesn’t profess to know all the answers, and people warm to that. Yes, he’s the Pope and inspired by the Lord, but he’s not superhuman! He shows that humanity in his openness and compassion,” the parish priest adds.

His willingness to dedicate time to groups that might not normally be met with kindness actually aligns with Catholic doctrine very firmly.

“Pope Francis was really helpful in terms of knowing I still had the right to be Catholic when I was in my political experimental phase.”

ROSA, President of Oxford University’s Catholic SOciety

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has dinner with outcasts, and is judged by the Pharisees who ask his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” To which He replies, “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Pope Francis, who was inaugurated in the Year of Mercy, had a similar controversial ‘lunch to the poor’, when he offered up halal lasagne to accommodate Muslim guests.

Canon Hopgood insists: “He hasn’t changed [the Church] really at all, but he’s changed the way people look at things – the pastoral approach.”

In a podcast, Delia Gallagher, Vatican Correspondent, reflected, “I remember coming back from Myanmar, and during the four days of that trip, the big question was ‘Will he talk about the Rohingya?’ (the Muslim minority there that is persecuted). Four days passed and he didn’t mention the Rohingya, so he had very bad headlines from that. Then on the final night, the Pope takes the microphone and says, ‘Today the face of Jesus is also called Rohingya’.”

It seems this reactiveness is less about caring what the media says of him and more about the Church unplugging its ears. “He wants the Church to be a listening Church … a hospital where all are welcome,” Canon Hopgood added.

From Rihanna’s bejewelled Pope’s hat at the 2018 Met Gala, to #popebars trending on Twitter, Catholicism has long been on the internet’s radar.

However, being a pop icon, social media personality, or meme was never something that interested the Pope. He once said, “The world is tired of trendy priests…they walk away when they recognise narcissists, manipulators, defenders of their own causes, auctioneers of vain crusades.”

Logically then, we should expect young people – experts in “trendiness” – to suss out these vain self-serving crusaders from a mile away.

In a global election year, we can only pray for the rise of the nice guy. So, while we’re not expecting to see posters of Pope Francis up all over anyone’s bedroom as if he’s a Spice Girl, we are hopefully hearing the message he’s been putting out: “When the world is sick of division and game-playing, if it ever wants to return to love, the door is ajar.”

Who are you to shut it?


Featured image by Ashwin Vaswani via Unsplash.

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