Pope Francis virtually meets with college students at historic event hosted by Loyola

Thursday’s event, titled “Building Bridges,” was part of the Catholic Church’s ongoing synodal process and a culmination of hours of conversations over the last month between a larger group of 130 students — many with a wide range of life experiences and in different areas of study — from 58 universities in 21 countries.

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Pope Francis met virtually Thursday with students from 58 universities, including Loyola University in Chicago.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Aleja Sastoque Luna tried to remain calm Thursday morning as she prepared herself to speak with Pope Francis.

“Be calm, he’s just a pastor. Yes, he’s the pope, but he’s also a human being just like you,” she recalled telling herself.

Sastoque Luna shared part of her life journey during a historic conversation between Pope Francis and a group of 16 college students hosted by Loyola University Chicago. Her words even struck a chord with the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, who addressed her directly during the nearly two-hour conversation that was viewed by dozens at a watch party at the Damen Student Center.

The event, titled “Building Bridges,” was part of the Catholic Church’s ongoing synodal process and a culmination of hours of conversations over the last month between a larger group of 130 students — many with a wide range of life experiences and in different areas of study — from 58 universities in 21 countries.

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Recent Loyola graduate Aleja Sastoque Luna participated in the zoom call with Pope Francis during the event called “Building Bridges North-South” hosted by Loyola University. Thursday, February 24, 2022.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times  

When it was her turn to speak, Sastoque Luna said she worked in construction and landscaping and as a butcher and nanny before she landed a scholarship at Loyola. The Colombia native said her journey to the U.S. came with many struggles that included learning a new language and being separated from her family, friends and culture.

“My story is the same as many others,” said Sastoque Luna, 32. “There is a lot of frustration with increasingly toxic narratives that surround immigrants and displaced people. We are often described with dehumanizing language...

“We are dreamers, hard workers, people who offer the best to these or any country. We are hopeful by working together as students we can build bridges that should have already been constructed. We want to be part of the love that provides directions and encouragement and support for others to achieve a good life.”

The pope addressed her directly, thanking her for being open with her experience. Hearing him say her name made her excited, she said. She bit her tongue as she tried to keep her composure, though she was tempted to rip off her watch that frantically started to buzz with notifications from friends and family who watched the encounter.

Almost an hour after the conversation, Sastoque Luna was still shaking.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Sastoque Luna, who recently graduated from Loyola’s Institute of Pastoral Studies with dual degrees. “But I think more than that is, I didn’t do this myself. It was like 20 more students next to me and we put it together.”

The groups also virtually met in their respective pods numerous times to discuss some of the most notable current issues facing the Catholic Church and world. The topics deliberated included climate change, immigration and globalization.

From those conversations, the groups developed new perspectives and educational projects to address some of those issues, which they shared with Pope Francis during the event organized by Loyola’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, Department of Theology and the Joan and Bill Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage

The pope took notes as the students spoke honestly about their viewpoints, which included some critiques on how some religious leaders have failed to address issues like climate change. He also answered many of their questions.

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Loyola students, alumni and staff watch a conversation between Pope Francis and university students Thursday.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Sastoque Luna said she felt inspired by the pope’s message to “make a mess” — in a good way — by getting more involved with their university communities as well as those outside school walls. He also challenged them to find their voices and continue to work together for the common good and emphasized the importance of caring for immigrants and the planet.

Pope Francis — the first Jesuit and Latin American pope — seemed receptive to the idea of continuing these dialogues in the future.

“As a pastor, you know, I will make an effort to be closer to people and serve you in the best possible [way],” he said through a translator.

The conversation with the pope, which was meant to engage with anyone regardless of their faith backgrounds, came just 14 hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, carrying out airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending troops and tanks on the ground.

“Precisely what we’re doing is when it’s most needed — not just in the continent here of the Americas, not just in our back door here and in our university and in our city. But this building of bridges is what we need most at this time because we will either build bridges, or we will all perish,” said Michael Diaz, the John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola’s biggest celebrity, had a front-row seat to the conversation. Her main takeaway from the dialogue was the importance of listening to one another.

“The word ‘bridges’ always suggests communication to me, and this is something that we’re lacking in society,” she said. “Because sometimes we have the upper echelon, making all the decisions, and then putting them down to us. Whereas I believe the grassroots people, like the students ... they have some very good ideas.”

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