University students dialogue with Pope Francis during Loyola event

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Friday, February 25, 2022

University students dialogue with Pope Francis during historic Loyola event

Loyola University hosted a virtual meeting with Pope Francis and university students from North, Central and South America to address salient challenges of our times on Feb. 24, 2022. During this historic encounter, the pope dialogued with university students, highlighting migrants and children of migrants who are committed to developing processes that justly transform environmental and economic realities related to human migration and displacement. Loyola University Chicago had 13 students participating in the event and one, Aleja Sastoque, spoke directly with Pope Francis. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Loyola staff and volunteers greet students entering Damen Student Center to participate in the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students received buttons with an image of Pope Francis, hand fans with Pope Francis’ image for cheering and holy cards to commemorate the special event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ashlar, Loyola’s therapy dog, is on hand to greet students and sit in for a few photos near a cutout of Pope Francis. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Sister Jean and Ashlar, Loyola’s therapy dog, pose for photos with students near a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jamie Glas, a fourth-year student, and Julia Rotondi, a graduate student, emcee Loyola’s event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Loyola’s mascot LU Wolf takes a seat to watch the pope with students. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich welcomes students via livestream and gives opening remarks to kickoff the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Loyola students Megan Adams and Gabby Tewodros watch the live-streamed event inside the “Damen Den” on the Lake Shore Campus. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Pope Francis appears virtually to a packed room of Loyola students at the Lake Shore Campus. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Loyola students take notes on their laptops during the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Loyola student Aleja Sastoque (right top corner) was one of 13 students to speak to Pope Francis among an international panel. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Emily Wirtz claps when Loyola student Aleja Sastoque gets her turn to speak to Pope Francis. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A student tucks pope memorabilia as a keepsake of the special day in her backpack. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

University students from across the Americas who had the opportunity to address Pope Francis directly on Feb. 24 about migration used their time to talk about climate change and care for the earth; welcome, accompaniment and integration of migrants; and the need to address structural inequities that lead people to move from their homelands.

The Zoom conversation was part of “Building Bridges North-South: A Synodal Encounter Between University Students and Pope Francis,” which was organized to bring together young people from North, Central and South America as well as the pope during the “Synod on Synodality” that will culminate with a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2023.

It involved nearly 130 students from 58 universities in 21 countries who have been meeting in regional groups to determine what they wanted to ask the pope, what they wanted to tell the pope and what they plan to do to reach out to migrants going forward.

It was organized by several departments and offices within Loyola University Chicago, including the theology department, the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage and the Institute of Pastoral Studies, with the help of Emilce Cuda, secretary for the Pontifical Commission on Latin America.

Students from the regional groups presented in pairs, with two groups — one from the north and one from the south — presenting at the same time.

The 85-year-old pontiff sat at a desk in front of bookcases and took notes while the students spoke, and then responded to what each group had to say.

It is important, Pope Francis told the students, to not only think about problems, but also to feel with their hearts and then to take action.

“As we often say, this time is not the time of changes. It is a change of times,” the pope said in Spanish, which was immediately translated into English and Portuguese. “How can we manage this change of times? How can we understand the questions that we are asked today? We can welcome the questions with our mind and our heart. We have to respond in an intelligent way, in a heartful way and in a pragmatic way.”

Students proposed a variety of projects, from research and partnerships between their universities and the private sector to better help for migrants and refugees to podcasts to offer information to migrants and those who want to help them to development efforts aimed at “reactivating” the economies of rural areas in Central and South America, where people leave because there is no way to support themselves and their families.

Emily Burke of the University of Wisconsin-Madison spoke of establishing centers for young people to learn how to engage in direct, non-violent action aimed at getting people to take action on climate change.

But students also asked pointed questions, including why don’t more priests and bishops share widely the Catholic Church’s teaching on ecology and care for our common home, and what can the church do to encourage more of them to do so?

“Catholic teaching can inspire action,” said Henry Glynn, a student at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, noting that the church can mobilize people and resources including money, infrastructure, land and advocacy networks. “U.S. Catholic leaders have not prioritized church teaching about climate change. … The failure to share and act the church’s own teaching on climate change is disillusioning.”

Pope Francis encouraged the students’ commitment to non-violence.

“It is based on dialogue and respect,” he said. “It is much easier to hit someone or insult someone instead of offering the other side of our face. God is merciful and he is tender. The tenderness of God is important.”

Santiago Varela from Argentina and Dennise Rodriguez from Ecuador asked for the pope’s help in removing the stigma faced by migrants and refugees.

“We ask you to continue to fight for those who are forgotten and those who are without voice,” Cabrera said. “The poor are the first to be forgotten, the first to be ignored, the first to migrate in hope for a better future.”

The students said they want to create alliances between migrants and residents of the countries they move to.

Pope Francis acknowledged the stigma often faced by migrants, and encouraged the students to keep working to improve the situation.

“The mission of university students is to leave the world in a better state than the one in which you live,” Pope Francis said. “People will say, ‘You are young, you are idealistic’. No. Don’t accept this.”

Rather, he said, continue to act with sincerity.

As for the Catholic clergy who seem distant from their flocks, they are not true pastors, the pope said.

“They are members of the establishment. They surround themselves with people who are conformist. A pastor who is not close to the people is a pastor who lacks something, they lack something essential,” he said. “Please get close to your pastors. Help them. We are convinced that we both need one another. I need you and you need me.”

Aleja Sastoque, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, talked about her experience coming to Chicago eight years ago as an international student from Colombia.

Sastoque quoted from Matthew 25, about giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. That is not the experience of many migrants, she said. While she received a scholarship to support her studies, she has done everything from construction work to nannying to make ends meet.

“I feel I will never be enough for my Colombian people or my American people,” said Sastoque, who recently received dual master’s degrees in divinity and pastoral counseling and is on the campus ministry staff at the university. “My story is the same as many others. We are dreamers, hard workers. We’re hopeful we can build bridges that should have already been constructed.”

Sastoque and Sophia Alvarado, a student in Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability who was part of the same student working group as Sastoque, met with media and other students who attended a watch party at the Damen Student Center on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus.

Alvarado, who grew up in Minnesota with a Mexican immigrant father and a Swedish American mother, said she hopes the conversation with Pope Francis gets more people talking about the climate crisis, inside and outside the church.

“People don’t always feel like there’s an issue unless it impacts them directly,” she said. “Hopefully, this builds awareness.”

In a video greeting before the presentations, Cardinal Cupich welcomed the students.

“The spirit of synodality is uniquely alive in the minds and hearts of young people,” Cardinal Cupich said, recognizing their efforts to learn from one another about the “complex problems associated with immigration and migration and the suffering of refugees. These students understand the need to build bridges rather than erecting walls. That is the fundamental call of the Gospel. This all begins with the practice of listening.”

After the meeting, Sastoque said listening is not something that always comes naturally to people.

“To make something a habit, you have to practice it,” she said, adding that the need to listen applies to everyone.

“If you want to do a show, there are many shows outside,” Sastoque said. “This wasn’t a show. … We were talking about real stuff that happens to people, and it happens to everyone, not just Catholics.”


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