By Christopher Gunty | Catholic News Service
Reflecting themes he has emphasized throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis participated Feb. 24 in a webinar with university students from North and South America to discuss “building bridges” north to south.
“This is the Christian vocation, to build bridges. Christ came to be the bridge between God the Father and us. If a Christian does not build bridges, it means they forgot their own baptism, because to build bridges is part of our vocation,” the pope said in his opening remarks for the session.
In the encounter, the pope dialogued with 16 university students in four groups of four, who made presentations on migration, the environment and nonviolence. Pope Francis responded to each group, and could be seen on the video taking copious notes as the students spoke.
Sponsored by Loyola University Chicago and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the session was interpreted and captioned in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The pope spoke in Spanish.
Formally titled “Building Bridges North-South,” the session was organized by the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, and the Department of Theology at Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago.
More than 130 students from 58 universities in 21 countries participated in the discussions in seven regional groups that were held over the past several weeks to prepare for the dialogue with Pope Francis.
The pope said that universities play an important role in solutions to the problems facing the world. Universities, with a range of disciplines and influence nourish the minds of students with concepts and ideas.
However, he noted, “a man or woman who just fills their mind with concepts, eventually they are cold, they are heartless, because they have this only in their mind. But university students must follow their studies … so they merge their heart and their hands.”
The pope said he likes to talk to young people, because it makes him feel younger.
The program, scheduled to last an hour, ran for almost two hours. As groups of four students and scholars including representatives from the South and the North were introduced to the pope, they presented their topics in about 90 seconds each.
Some of the students asked the pope for his support or advice on how to move forward with their concept, including a request that he make such a dialogue with college students a new tradition for popes. He responded to them by name, referring to points they had made.
In his response to the first group, he noted that the students had several times used the word roots in their discussion about migration issues.
“Everyone takes their energy from the roots,” Pope Francis said, noting that his own family had immigrated to Argentina from Italy when his father was in his 20s. He noted that those who did not learn the language of their new country did not do well.
“They have to learn the language without losing their roots,” he said, adding, “We cannot integrate the migrant by making them forget about their roots.”
In his opening remarks, he said, “Migrants must be received, accompanied, promoted, integrated.” Referring to many nations, he said, “We are countries built by immigrants. My land, Argentina is a cocktail of migrants.”
Another group talked to the pope about poverty and food insecurity, which often forces people to leave their homes, their land and their cultural roots. The students proposed a program to help people remain in place, creating “centers of permanence” which would act as research hubs for technologies and initiatives for sustainable development.
Another student noted that based on an analysis, no U.S. diocese has committed to carbon neutrality and that bishops and priests don’t discuss climate change regularly.
Another student urged more centers to train people on nonviolent direct action to address the climate crisis.
The pope responded to these concerns by saying, “You propose a harmony with nature. Violence always destroys nature, never builds it up. Nonviolence is based on dialogue and respect. … We must act in such a way that people don’t have a desire to migrate.
“They should be able to remain in a good life in harmony with nature. When there is violence, there is no life,” he said.
He recalled a Spanish proverb: “God forgives always, we forgive sometimes, nature never forgives.”
The pope added, “If we destroy nature, then we create a chain of violence.”
A third group of students brought to the pope ideas about pastors not being close to their people; about collaboration and health care, especially in light of the pandemic; and noting the inhumane conditions of migration often exclude migrants from housing and health care.
They encouraged the pope to continue to fight for those who are forgotten or without a voice and asked for advice on how to get corporations and governments to rethink public policy that exploits natural resources.
Pope Francis paused to think before responding and acknowledged that the students had said they wanted to improve the world. “Am I able to leave the world better than the one I am living in now?” the pope asked. To do so, “we have to change from the inside,” he said.
The pope acknowledged the overpopulation of cities that often comes from the movement of people from rural areas when there is a lack of work.
“Often these people are alone. They often don’t have the minimum to survive,” he said. “These people in their own land worked well, lived very well, had a house, had something to eat. Now they live in misery.”
Empathy and brotherhood are the ways to follow. “The leading way is hope. Hope does not deceive if it is a true hope.”
In response to final group of presentations, the pope decried the stigmatization of migrants and immigrants, including physical and psychological violence.
He complimented Aleja Sastoque, a native of Colombia who recently completed master’s degrees at Loyola, on the fact that she spoke Spanish in her presentation.
“The fact you talked in the language of your ancestors means you didn’t forget your roots. These roots became jewels for you,” he told Sastoque, who now serves as a faith formation campus minister at Loyola.
He also noted that a synodal church should not be a closed church, citing the example of a priest in his neighborhood who invited the migrants in his area to the church for a holiday feast if they did not have someone with whom they could celebrate. “If this is the house of God, it is where people feed you and take care of you.”
The pope recalled the Scripture passage where the Lord calls himself the door and that if someone knocks, he will open the door.
Christ also is knocking on the door to get out, he said. “The church has to get out of the door. This is the synodal aspect,” Pope Francis said.
After concluding remarks, the pope gave a final blessing and said, “Please don’t forget to pray for me.”
Note: The video sessions with Pope Francis are available on YouTube in English, Spanish and Portuguese at https://www.youtube.com/user/LoyolaChicago.