Aleteia, the Catholic organization behind the now ubiquitous Popemoji, wants American Catholics to engage or re-engage with their faith and is institutionally agnostic about how that happens. Jesus, after all, gave his most famous sermon in something not dissimilar to a public park. If the Son of God wasn’t too good to meet people where they lived, then his followers should be either. Nor, Aleteia’s Jason Deal points out, should they be overly concerned with institutions.

The thinking isn’t that Pope Francis becomes an avatar for the Catholic Church, but that he — or cartoon him anyway — becomes a symbol of hope. You don’t, the thinking goes, have to believe that Jesus rose on the third day in fulfillment of the scriptures to believe in Cool Pope.

Inverse talked to Deal about the strategic thinking behind the Popemoji, the dangers of turning the Pope into a meme, and using internet to evangelize — or not.

Nobody expected Popemojis to be a thing. How did this happen?

We decided a couple of months ago, with the Pope coming, that we had an obligation to do what we could to support the Pope’s visit. As Obama said this morning, he’s shaking the conscience of people and asking us all to think about important questions in a new and much more human way. So we just said, let’s use our resources to create a platform, and we pretty much have turned the campaign over to a bunch of young people, frankly.

They’re all twentysomethings, and they came up with the idea that young people love emojis and they would love to have Pope emojis, so we worked with a partner, Swyft Media, who helped us develop it and quickly get it into the App Store. It trended on the third day — we hit 40,000 downloads in a week, and I think we’re at about 60,000 now in about 13 days, so it’s really taken off.

Is there a bigger campaign behind the Popemojis?

We found that every time the Pope would travel someplace, the hashtag #PopeIsHope would start to pop up organically. In fact, I learned subsequently — even after the campaign started — that that phrase goes back to when Pope John Paul II went to Berlin, back in the ‘70s. It came back to life as a hashtag when Pope Francis came in, so that was kind of cool.

So we just said, let’s create a platform for young people to talk about #PopeIsHope, and what that means to them, and why he represents hope in the world. We came up with a strategy called “Good is Winning.” We have 75 digital street team members spread across D.C., Philly, and New York that are influencers — experts in everything from Periscope to Snapchat to Vine to Instagram. They’re all running around those cities, documenting, chronicling the Pope’s visit using the #PopeisHope hashtag.

But aren’t you running the risk of reducing the Pope to an internet meme?

It is a balancing act. Frankly, the Church is always so careful, cautious, and protective that we felt like we needed to play on the boundaries, on the edges a little bit, in order to be relevant — in order to get anybody’s attention. We also didn’t want this to be a solemn, highly religious effort and conversation. We really see the Pope’s coming to Cuba and the United States as a real celebration. It was very important that we make it positive and optimistic — and fun. Pope Francis, if you read anything about him, he has a wonderful sense of humor, he doesn’t take himself super seriously, and he’s the guy who has, frankly, admonished his peers in the Catholic Church about being too closed off and meet people where they are and to be relevant in their lives — the same way Jesus did.

So, in a sense, what you’re saying is that Jesus probably would’ve been okay with using Popemojis.

He didn’t go out talking about religion first. He would go out and talk to people in a way that was relevant in their lives and talk about the things they were interested in and the problems they were dealing with. And so we felt like — not that we’re Jesus — but we felt like you have to start by meeting people where they are in a way that’s going to be engaging and relevant and interesting to them. We’re not the Vatican — we’re a media company — so we can be a little bit more progressive, I guess, than most people closely associated with the Church. We got comfortable with the idea of having fun with the campaign right from the start.

What’s the ultimate goal of “Good is Winning” and the Popemojis?

It’s the idea that there are amazing, good things happening all over the world, in spite of what the news and Facebook want you to believe. And there’s good reason for hope and optimism in the future, which I think has been very poignant. My sense is that a lot of young people — whether it’s the environment, or war, or social injustice — that the world is really heading in the wrong direction, and that there’s a huge mess for your generation to clean up. So we wanted to have a conversation around — is there reason to have hope? And we believe that there is.

How do you plan to convince us? Most of us think we’re screwed.

Basically, now that this has started to build some momentum, we’re talking to people — almost like Humans of New York style — in capturing stories, asking people to share stories. And we’re going to be helping them to develop and amplify those positive stories of good will in the world.

Isn’t that banking on the millennial desire to become internet famous?

I won’t classify millennials as being more driven by that motivation than any other prior generation — everybody kind of wanted their moment of fame, I guess. I think that that could potentially be a motivation behind some of the sharing and engagement. But I think, frankly, young people just want reason to have hope. And sometimes reading and hearing and watching other people’s stories, and sometimes that’s going out there and being the hope.

So, I don’t know. Maybe it’s fame that they’re seeking, or maybe we’re making them think a little bit.

Since emoji are universal, are you targeting non-Catholics too?

We had a hope that if we could be relevant and interesting enough, that we could reach young, what we call “un-Church” people, people that don’t have a religious affiliation. But it really wasn’t a primary objective. Our primary objective is to engage the millions of Catholic millennials and young people that candidly — frankly, it’s no surprise — are less and less religious. There’s lots of data from Pew that show that all religions are really having a hard time engaging young people and keeping them “in the fold.” It was about engaging with our own young Catholic community, but we also had a hope that we could also jump outside of that box.

Has there been a backlash from older, ultra-conservative Catholics who think the Pope is getting a bit too loose?

Maybe in really really staunchly conservative orthodox Catholic circles, they would look at what we’re doing — even what Pope Francis is doing — critically. Because it’s certainly not solemn. And it’s certainly communicated in a way that they’ve never experienced before. But we’re not hearing about it. We’ve got other troll issues that we’re dealing with — but they’re not coming from Orthodox Catholics.

So, ultimately, the hope is that social media will win millennials over to the Church.

Being connected to one’s faith is a process. It’s like dating — you don’t come right out at a bar and go, “Marry me” to a complete stranger. You have to figure out if you have common interests, and you have to talk about the things that matter to you, values, and all that stuff before you even decide if you want to be part of a religion.

Apparently the cheesesteak Popemoji is resonating the most with audiences?

I keep expecting it to fall down the charts, but it’s strong. Every day it’s the number one. Maybe people think it’s a Subway sandwich, or a taco, I don’t know.

I thought it was a burrito.

Well maybe that’s why. It’s universal.

Photos via Aleteia