Thursday afternoon, Loyola University Chicago hosted a historic encounter between Pope Francis and students from across the Americas as part of the synodal process that the Holy Father has invited the Church to undertake. I am currently finishing my third and final year at Loyola Chicago and while I was not invited to chat with Pope Francis, I was able to attend a watch party on campus.
The event included a dozen students from across North, South, and Central America who shared their thoughts and experiences with the Holy Father. Particularly, the students focused mostly on the intersection of the life and purpose of university students with migration and environmental concerns. You can watch the full conversation here.
Here are my top three takeaways from the Holy Father’s encounter with university students of the Americas:
University students are frustrated, disillusioned, and cynical with regards to many of the U.S. bishops and pastors. While some may have wished these students to push the Holy Father more on various subjects, I thought the students clearly voiced their frustrations with the leadership of bishops and pastors. Particularly, I heard not only a great concern but a serious doubt and cynicism over a lack of a response from bishops on climate change, and a lack of nearness of pastors with their flock.
As is typical with Pope Francis, he did not offer specific solutions but took up the mission of both challenger and consoler. “The mission of university students is to leave a better world than one currently has,” he said. Change “starts from the inside not the outside. We have to change from the inside.”
In addition to this call to personal conversion, he encouraged students to not give into the voices of those who dismiss them as being young and idealistic. He also returned to one of his favorite themes of pastors having the smell of their flock, saying that pastors must be at times “in front, in the middle, and behind their flock.” He also encouraged the students to help get close to your pastor. “They need you and you need them,” he said. He even ended one of his responses promising his personal efforts to be closer to the people.
“Don’t enter into the game of hypocrisy. Be sincere.” The Holy Father offered this advice “as a father and as a grandfather,” he said, which captures the tone of the whole encounter beautifully. This advice of being sincere and non-hypocritical came in response to questions about how the Christian commitment to non-violence can be used to address climate change.
I can’t help but wonder if this is a lesson learned from the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. None of the students brought up the crisis during the event, but this desire for sincerity and authenticity seems to be the antithesis of the kind of attitude that made the sex abuse crisis possible. What is most difficult for many, including myself, is not only the heinous and evil crimes committed by clergy, but the lengths to which the Church went to hide and cover up these acts of violence. The Church was anything but sincere and most certainly practiced the highest form of hypocrisy.
If the Church is to be successful in its mission, whether with regards to caring for our youth or our common home, then we must heed the advice of Pope Francis to not be hypocritical and enter into dialogue with sincerity.
Pope Francis is not just listening. He’s also taking notes. It is easy for me to be skeptical of this whole synodal process. I mean, c’mon, do we really need more meetings about meetings? But witnessing Pope Francis in a zoom box the same size of all of those on the call taking thorough notes from students in their dorm rooms moved me greatly. While what the various students had to say was valuable, this image of Pope Francis is what I’m taking away with me above all else. The successor of St. Peter was listening to students born after the year 2000. All of us in positions of leadership and authority have much to learn from Pope Francis’ deep listening and note taking.