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Maine Catholic College Students Following Pope's Arrival in US

Jay Field
The stained-glass window at St. Joseph's College in Standish.

STANDISH, Maine — The first Pope to use a Twitter account has arrived in the U.S., and students at St. Joseph's College here say they'll be following his historic visit.

Like the nation as a whole, membership in the Catholic Church in Maine has been on the decline for decades, especially among young people.

At St. Joseph's, students give Pope Francis high marks for showing tolerance in the way he talks about the social issues that divide the church.

But will that, by itself, be enough to bring more young people back to regular mass, at the only Catholic college, in one of the least religious states in the nation?

Mass at 11:45 a.m. at St. Joseph's College ended a few minutes ago. The pews are empty in the small chapel. The air still smells of candle wax. Light streams in over the altar, refracted by a large stained-glass window depicting the college's view over nearby Sebago Lake.

Credit Jay Field / MPBN
Chris Hughes

"That stained glass window is kind of a reminder that, you know, God's everywhere, God's in nature, God's here on campus," says Chris Hughes, one of nearly 1,000 students who attend this small liberal arts college, founded by in 1912 by the Sisters of Mercy.

College officials estimate that more than half of the students were raised in Catholic families. Hughes, who grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, says he went to church regularly and is actively involved in campus ministry.

"We do have a nice crowd that comes together for mass on Sundays," he says.

But it's not a large crowd.

"Some of our Catholic and non-Catholic students are basically not affiliated with any religion or any church," says Father John McHugh, in his fifth year as campus chaplain at St. Joseph's. "They just have backed away."

There are also lots of students like junior Amanda Tarlow.

"My family usually goes, like Christmas, Easter," she says.

Tarlow, though, says she'll be following Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.

"I've heard a lot of good things about him," she says. "Like he's really concerned about the environment. I don't know if he's for gay marriage, but he's OK with it? I thought I heard that somewhere, I'm not sure, but I thought that was pretty cool."

Pope Francis does not favor gay marriage. But the way the pontiff talks about controversial social issues has been widely seen as an effort to push Catholicism in a more modern, inclusive direction.

Two years ago, he uttered the now-famous words "Who am I to judge?" when asked about gay priests. He has called on the church to embrace Catholics who've remarried without annulment. He has said women should not be ordained, but should have a larger role in the church. And he has granted priests the right to forgive women for having abortions, during the Holy Year of Mercy.

"He brings a whole new view of Catholicism, while still holding to the core beliefs and doctrines," says Garrett Forss, a junior from Worcester and a devout Catholic who plans to settle in Maine after college.

It's a papacy that's resonating with many church-going Catholics. But what about the disaffected?

Hannah Gonnville, a theology major from Madawaska, says mass attendance in her hometown has been declining for years, especially among young people.

"I think he can definitely draw a lot of people back to the church," she says. "He's charismatic enough that he can sort of find something that will draw the people in."

Father McHugh says he was struck by the pope's charisma as he followed Francis' trip to Brazil two years ago.

"Millions of people, most of them young people, just flocking to him," he says. "And I think he'll have a similar immediate impact on some of the young people in our country."

The frenzied crowd that greeted the pope on his parade through the streets of Washington Wednesday suggests McHugh may be right.

But the longtime college chaplain says it's what young Catholics do with all that energy that will determine whether Francis can convince some of them to come back to mass.