I’m too young to have known John Paul II. He died before I cared about Jesus, let alone the pope. Benedict was pope during my conversion at the end of high school and during college. But I was too deeply entrenched in culture war stuff to care much about what the pope had to say.
Back in college I binged listened to Catholic Answers. I read The Catholic Thing pretty much daily. I regularly read First Things. I cheered when George Weigel came to my alma mater. I was even a fan of Cardinal Burke. Looking back, the reason I immersed myself in these sources was primarily because I was reacting against the liberal heterodoxy I was surrounded by at school.
Francis was elected after I graduated college and was starting to reevaluate my culture war Catholicism. I knew Republicans didn’t like him, but I didn’t pay attention any more than that.
During the year of mercy I read Francis’ book, “The Name of God is Mercy” and fell deeply in love with the pope. That book was the start of a long process, a process that continues now, of shedding the legalism and pelagianism that I thought was the definition of orthodoxy.