In the third edition of the “Building Bridges” initiative, Pope Francis engaged in a virtual dialogue with twelve Catholic university students from various parts of Asia on September 26.
The event was organized by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Institute for Pastoral Studies, and the Office for Global and Community Engagement at Loyola University Chicago. The synodal discussion was centered on pressing issues such as social networks and media literacy, bullying, teenage suicide, and religious freedom and testimony.
During the virtual exchange, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of embracing and celebrating the rich tapestry of diversity found in Asia. He said, “You need the harmony that is found in the beauty of the differences that you know how to create so well in Asia.”
The meeting became a platform for three Catholic university students from South Asia—Florina from Delhi, India, Nyra from Nepal, and Sheril from Pakistan, where Christians are a minority, to share their experiences of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution by sectarian and occasionally fundamentalist communities. They also expressed their hopes for a brighter future, their struggles in openly practicing their religion, and their concerns about their faith potentially waning.
In response, Pope Francis expressed deep empathy for their narratives, which touched his heart. He likened their struggles to the plight of Asia Bibi, an innocent victim of fanaticism that arises from the fear of differences, leading to anti-fraternal prejudice. He highlighted the danger of reducing social values into divisive ideas and the transformation of those who think differently into offenders, culprits, and, at times, martyrs. The Pope urged the young people to follow in the footsteps of their fathers who recognized Jesus as the Savior and encouraged them to embrace different perspectives with outstretched hands, fostering understanding and unity.
The dialogue continued as Rosita, who had moved to the United Arab Emirates with her family and studied sociology and economics, expressed her concerns about losing her cultural and religious identity. Pope Francis reassured her by highlighting the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, which enables people to comprehend one another, and encouraged her to maintain her convictions while seeking to understand others.
The students discussed various societal issues prevalent in Asia, including bullying, especially on social networks, and youth suicides. Merilin Rose, a chemistry student from Bangalore, shared her experiences of being ridiculed for not conforming to society’s beauty standards. In response, Pope Francis shared his own childhood experience of a classmate who was overweight and teased, highlighting the importance of recognizing inner and outer beauty in everyone.
Pope Francis commended the young people of Asia for their ability to embrace the beauty of differences, advising against the temptation to standardize everything. He spoke about the importance of helping young individuals overcome failures and find resilience, emphasizing the significance of mental health and maintaining a sense of humor.
The students Mary Lavina, a law student in Bangalore, and Joseph, a physics student in Kerala, delved into the challenges and benefits of the internet in Asia. They discussed media literacy for young people and the impact of digital technology on knowledge access, political polarization, and interreligious and interethnic relations. Pope Francis called for a creative approach to ensuring equality in access to technologies and warned against the dangers of overspecialization.
The Pope highlighted the problem of half-truths and the need for fidelity to news and facts, stressing that news that distorts reality is detrimental. He underscored the importance of dialogue and agreement in fostering real democracy, emphasizing that the outstretched hand is essential for creating harmony and humanity.
Pope Francis emphasized that dialogue is the path to building a better world and ultimately, humanity itself. The “Building Bridges” initiative provided a platform for young Asian Catholic students to engage in a constructive and insightful dialogue with the spiritual leader, addressing crucial issues and fostering unity among diverse cultures and backgrounds.