Loyola University to host meeting between pope and students

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2022

A promotional image on the website of Loyola University Chicago advertises the university’s upcoming virtual meeting with Pope Francis and students from North, Central and South America Feb. 24, 2022. (CNS photo/Loyola University Chicago)

Pope Francis will join university students from across the Western Hemisphere in a virtual event hosted by Loyola University Chicago on Feb. 24.

“Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students” will be more of a launching pad for a movement than the culmination of months of event planning, said Peter Jones, interim dean of Loyola’s Institute of Pastoral Studies.

“We had anticipated having just one conference, one event,” Jones said. “It’s become a movement, a network. It’s involving students from all the disciplines, law, medicine, business, to talk with Francis about pressing issues among them, but also to propose solutions.”

After the conversation with Pope Francis, Jones and other organizers say, the students will continue to meet to put their ideas into action.

The event came about almost by accident, the organizers said. People from Loyola’s theology department, the Institute for Pastoral Studies and the Joan and Bill Hank Center the Catholic Intellectual Heritage were discussing how the university could participate in the ongoing “synod on synodality,” the church’s worldwide effort to listen to the people of God on how the church can “walk with” them. The synod (the word means “to walk with”) will conclude with the 2023 World Synod of Bishops, which will listen to what the people of God have said in the synodal meetings leading up to it.

While all dioceses should be engaging in their own efforts to hear what their people understand about what it means for the church to walk with them, Loyola wanted to involve its students as well.

Perhaps, leaders thought, they could get someone from Rome to respond, maybe even Cardinal Mario Grech, the executive secretary of the Synod of Bishops?

“Someone said, ‘Why not the pope?’” said Michael Murphy, director of the Hanks Center. “And everybody kind of said, ‘Haha.’”

One of the people who heard that was Emilce Cuda, an Argentinian theologian who will be teaching in IPS’ Spanish-language master’s degree program. Loyola had hired her before she was named head of the office for the Pontifical Council of Latin America at the Vatican last August. Part of her charge in that role, Jones said, is to help build bridges in the Americas between North and South.

“A week later, before Christmas, Dr. Cuda called back and said, ‘The pope accepts,’” Murphy said.

That kicked off the planning for the event, including finding students from North, Central and South America who wanted to participate. So far, 130 to 140 university students are involved, organized into regional groups of 15 to 20. Each of those groups is meeting virtually to discuss the challenges they are facing and what they might do about them, and each of those groups will select a representative to speak directly to the pope.

The selected students will meet in the Zoom room with the pope in pairs, one from the north and from the south, and tell him what their groups discussed. The pope will then respond to each pair, in Spanish and without a script.

Anyone can register to watch the event virtually, with translation into English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“Pontifex” literally means “bridge builder,” said Felipe Legarreta, a member of the IPS faculty, and building bridges is what Pope Francis is doing here, and what he is encouraging everyone to do as part of the synod process. The pope has spoken about the need to build bridges rather than walls, notably on a 2016 visit to the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He’s not only building bridges, but actually going out to the periphery, the outskirts of the church, the outskirts of society,” Legarreta said. “That is precisely the point of this whole synod on synodality, reaching out to those in the peripheries.”

That includes young people, Murphy said.

“We have a world in real need,” he said. “Big institutions have failed young people, and the church is one of them. This is an opportunity for Pope Francis to listen to the people of God. We have these hungers, and things have broken down, and COVID has laid it bare, but we can journey together.”

Legarreta said it was Pope Francis’ request to include students from all disciplines.

“He doesn’t want to listen to just theologians,” he said. “We need medicine, law and business, all of them to identify the most pressing problems, and then to make real contributions as problem solvers, globally, not just in the U.S. and on the continent. … This synod on synodality, it is a call for true dialogue or conversation.”

After the virtual encounter, Jones said, it’s the students’ turn to move things forward.

“Then we’ll hand the construction tools over to the students,” he said. “We want them to be the ones who are building the bridges, to build bridges that they think are relevant and helpful. We want to set in motion a place for students who might not normally have an opportunity to be heard, to lift up their voices, their agency, their intentions.”

To register to watch the event, visit


  • pope francis
  • loyola university chicago
  • synod

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