Loyola University facilitates another Building Bridges discussion with Pope Francis

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Twelve university students from India, Pakistan and Nepal met online with Pope Francis in the third installment of Building Bridges, an effort initiated by Loyola University Chicago in 2022 to bring university students together to practice synodality.

The students who spoke in the video meeting with the pope represented groups of students brought together by universities in South Asia to discuss issues affecting them and their peers and how they can work together to improve relationships and their situations, following the synodal path of “walking together.”

Peter Jones, dean of Loyola’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, and Michael Murphy, director of Loyola’s Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage, introduced the meeting, which included four conversation between Pope Francis and three students at a time.

“In this present moment, when there is much talk and little listening, and when the sense of the common good is in danger of weakening, the living word of God calls out again to us,” Murphy said. “We are called to walk again with all people, called to listen, called to dialogue and called to discern together our shared journey and collaborative work.”

The students, speaking English, Hindi and Urdu, raised issues of “fake news” and misinformation; the rise of authoritarianism; discrimination faced by marginalized people in their countries, including women and religious minorities such as Christians; and the number of suicides among young people who face overwhelming pressure and cannot envision their futures.

The event was streamed with simultaneous translations available in English, Spanish and Hindi.

In all of his responses, Pope Francis encouraged the young people to avoid ideological conflicts; to bring their heads, hearts and hands to bear on the issues they address; to have courage and hope; and to extend the hand of friendship to all those around them.

After the first group of students spoke, discussing the “double-edged sword” of the Internet, the pervasiveness of misinformation and the lack of connection felt by Indians and young people of Indian heritage living in diaspora, Pope Francis urged the students to seek harmony, in themselves and in their relationships.

“The heart listens, the heart thinks, the heart acts,” the pope said in Spanish. “It is important for everything to be in harmony, so that what you think, what you feel, what you do , everything is consistent. Everything must go hand in hand.

“Harmony is not standardization or uniformity; on the contrary, it is the beauty in difference. The more these differences are harmonized, the greater the beauty. Don’t try to conceptualize everything. … Ideology can be deceiving. It can be deceiving because it reduces everything to the level of the mind. There are some people who are very much developed at the mind level, but have a very small heart, very small hands.”

The second group of students discussed the rise of atheism among their peers, the growth of for-profit models of education and the lack of educational opportunities for members of the Christian minority in Nepal.

Pope Francis said that education should be free for all people to allow everyone to develop their gifts and contribute to society, although he knows setting such systems up will not be easy or happen quickly.

“When education is free, there will be more students attending,” he said. “Otherwise, only the richest will have access to education, so money will rule everything. It is not easy to bring about with political proposals, but it is something we should try to bring about.”

In response to comments about the division caused by religious extremism leading both to atheism, from young people who want to opt out, and to discrimination and oppression, the pope once again warned against ideology and advocated for fraternity and friendship.

“We all have to overcome this,” he said of religious extremism. “There are extremists among Christians as well. It hurts, but we must say this. There are extremists who turn the Gospel into ideology. … We need to be brave, we need have the courage to listen to our neighbor, to welcome their words. This creates fraternity, brotherhood.”

The fourth group of students spoke about mental health issues and high rates of suicide among young adults. One student, Merlin Rose Marty from St. Joseph University in Bengaluru, India, spoke about being 13 years old and crying because she was not thin like the girls she saw online.

That anecdote drew a personal story from Pope Francis, who recalled bullying a classmate for being fat when he was a child, and having his father take him to the boy’s house to apologize. The two men reconnected as adults, Pope Francis said, when he was a priest and the other man was an evangelical pastor.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “He had overcome all his trauma, all his bullying, all his shame. It is the harmony of the individual, regardless of you being fat, thin, short, tall. Can you offer something harmonic, something that is tune with nature? Beauty makes us grow in terms of our mental health. Every man, every woman has their own beauty. We only need to learn to see it, to recognize it.”

Other students talked about the pressures imposed by parents and other family members and the difficulty students have finding employment.

Pope Francis suggested that they encourage their peers to focus on developing the resilience they need to recover from failure.

“Young people commit suicide because they are faced with a closed door,” he said. “They were looking for something and they can’t find it. We’re not angels. Angels fall only once; we fall many times because of our limits, but God gives us the resilience always to stand up again. The important thing is not to fall, but not to stay laying on the ground. I fall, but I stand up again. It’s important to offer a hand up to others.”

Following the video meeting, the students will continue to work in their groups to address the issues they raised with Pope Francis, Jones said, as previous participants in Building Bridges events have in the Americas and in Africa.

Africa has seen huge growth in its Building Bridges initiative, Jones said. Since students from nine African nations met online with Pope Francis in November 2022, the initiative has expand to include “conversations with the Spirit,” or synodal discussions among groups of students in 52 countries.

The African Building Bridges effort was organized with the help of DePaul University and DePaul faculty member Father Stan Chu Ilo, a member of the Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network, Jones said. He and other faculty members from Loyola had fewer contacts in South Asia, so they started by reaching out to Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the region.

The group came together in about four months with six regional partner institutions.


  • pope francis
  • loyola university chicago

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