The Pope And Obama Share A Knack For Inspiring The Young

President Obama met with Pope Francis this week at the Vatican. Among those watching most closely were young American Catholics.

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President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time this week at the Vatican. And among those watching most closely were young American Catholics. Young people have been a key part of the political constituency of President Obama's. And they are also among Pope Francis's biggest fans. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: At the Catholic University of America in Washington, Professor MaryAnn Cusimano Love greets her class - eight students - a mix of graduate and undergrads.

MARYANN CUSIMANO LOVE: Today, we're continuing our discussion of religion and world politics, how religious actors and political actors engage.

GONYEA: The meeting between President Obama and the pope offers a real world example. Twenty-one-year-old Angeline Larrivee sits in the front row. She's from Greenville, South Carolina. She looked at the meeting from the perspective of what it means for a still relatively new pope.

ANGELINE LARRIVEE: I think the importance of this is bringing Pope Francis into the political sphere, which he wasn't as much before because he's talking as a religious leader.

GONYEA: She says it begins an important dialogue with the President. In the back of the room sits 21-year-old Patrick Cardiello of Scarsdale, New York. He points to the most significant relationship between a president and pope of the past 50 years.

PATRICK CARDIELLO: Go back and look at Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. Those two men, you know, many people say, helped to collapse the Soviet Union. You know, may not have been a concerted effort, but Pope John Paul, he went to Poland, he went to many areas to campaign against communists. And Ronald Reagan, of course, did the same.

GONYEA: He adds that those two leaders in the 1980s had that common goal. As for today...

CARDIELLO: The president and Pope Francis may share some things that they believe in, but do that have a goal that they might want to go towards now?

GONYEA: Some suggest income inequality is that issue. Across town at another D.C.-based Catholic institution, Georgetown University, I met a different group of millennial-generation Catholics. Here the focus was on the similarities between the two leaders. Not just that Obama was the first African-American President and Francis the first pope from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere, but in the way each energized young people.

HANNAH MULDAVEN: I think that for the first time in a long time I've been really excited to tell people that I'm a Catholic.

GONYEA: That's Hannah Muldaven. She's a junior from Sacramento studying government. In 2008, it was common to hear similar levels of excitement about politics because of President Obama. But this week's meeting at the Vatican comes more than five years into Obama's time in office. His approval ratings are in the 40s and his support among young people has fallen as well. That was reflected in this conversation. Here's 19-year-old Andrew DeBraggio from upstate New York.

ANDREW DEBRAGGIO: I mean, if you look at these two figures it's definitely been very interesting kind of looking at just how one star's risen and one star's waned.

GONYEA: The president's campaign rhetoric about change and about getting the county beyond partisan divisions hit the hard reality of politics once he got to the White House. These students were quick to say there's a lesson in that history for the pope. Molly Robistell is a 19-year-old from New Canaan, Connecticut.

MOLLY ROBISTELL: He has a lot of support from American Catholics and the world as well, but he has only been pope for a year and he could just be in the honeymoon phase. And as we've seen Obama's path, his push for change wasn't as successful as he probably would have liked, so maybe that's a foreshadowing of what the pope's future will be.

GONYEA: It's the kind of discussion that comes up when two ground-breaking figures meet for the first time, one measured so far by the presidential battles behind him; the other by what's still ahead. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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