Pope Francis holds a Zoom conversation with Building Bridges Across South Asia

By Sr Titilayo Aduloju, SSMA

Sep 29 2023

Pope Francis meets with young university students from across Asia for the third “Building Bridges” initiative, 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 third edition of the “Building Bridges” initiatives in which Pope Francis virtually dialogued with twelve Catholic university students across Asia took place on 26 September.

The synodal discussion centred on social networks and media literacy, bullying, teenage suicide and religious freedom and testimony.

Pope Francis told the Asian young people: “You need the harmony that is found in the beauty of the differences that you know how to create so well in Asia.”

Asia’s youth concerned about dwindling faith

Three Catholic university students from South Asia – Florina from Delhi in India, Nyra from Nepal, and Sheril from Pakistan where Christians make up a small minority – spoke to Pope Francis about prejudice, discrimination, and persecution by sectarian and occasionally fundamentalist communities.

They opened up to the Holy Father about their hopes for a brighter future, their difficulty in not being able to openly express their religion, and their concern that their faith might wane.

Asia Bibi: a victim of fanaticism driven by fear

In response, Pope Francis said these young women’s narrative “touches my heart” and reminded him of the “martyrdom” of “Asia Bibi of Pakistan”, the innocent victim “of a fanaticism that is born out of fear” of differences, which breeds anti-fraternal prejudice.

The cause “is the reduction of social values into ideas. And those who don’t think like me I turn into offenders into culprits and then into martyrs. But this is how one becomes an ideologue of one’s own cultural suicide,” Pope Francis said.

The Holy Father advised these young people to “think of the boldness of your fathers in recognizing Jesus as Saviour, and dream that we can live with different points of view but with an outstretched hand and not paralytic.”

In this way, he said, everyone can grow, always forgiving and reaching hands to others and witness.

Expressing one’s beliefs while recognising everyone’s viewpoints

Rosita expressed her concerns that she would lose her cultural and religious identity since she moved to the United Arab Emirates with her family and studied sociology and economics.

The Pope reassured her by pointing out that at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for everyone to comprehend one another. And asked her to “have the tension of understanding with others, while presenting her own conviction.”

He stressed the fact that his father was a migrant as well, and that the people in the diaspora can start a new journey, “but without forgetting their roots.”

Find the value in harmony and say no to intimidation

Several other university students talked about the societal ills in Asia, such as “bullying, including in social networks, and youth suicides”.

Specifically, Merilin Rose, a student of Chemistry at Bangalore, recounted her experience of being ridiculed, as a young girl, “for a body that did not match society’s standards of beauty.”

Responding to her, Pope Francis recounted how in his class, with his classmates, a very overweight boy was teased.

“Once he fell on the floor and we all laughed at him,” he recalled, “but when my father heard about it, he sent me to his house to apologize.”

Years later, he met him when he was already a priest and an evangelical pastor, and had overcome “the trauma of bullying. He was a beautiful person because he was harmonious. Everyone has their beauty; you just have to know how to recognize it, in inner and outer harmony,” Pope Francis said.

“You in Asia know how to create this beauty of differences, “do not give in to the temptation to standardize everything,” he added.

Young people need a sense of humour to overcome failure

The Holy Father went on to say that a young person can commit suicide, “when he no longer sees a horizon but only closed doors on his dreams. He must be helped to overcome failure.”

“If angels fall and cannot get back up, to us human beings, God has given the capacity for resilience,” he added.

To him, according to the Alpine warrior’s song, what is imperative is not to avoid falling in the first place but to not stay fallen but to find someone to assist us in getting back up and never to lose your sense of humour, “which is mental health.”

Create a better internet space in Asia

Mary Lavina, a Law student in Bangalore, and Joseph, a Physics student in Kerala, discussed the challenges of the internet in Asia and the value of media literacy for young people.

These young people emphasised the benefits and downsides of the internet, which has given many people easy access to a wealth of knowledge but has also increased political polarisation and heightened tensions between different religions and ethnic groups.

They also highlighted the divide between those who have access to modern digital tools and those who have not.

Overcoming the obstacle, Pope Francis acknowledged that this “requires the language of thought, heart and hands. And a lot of creativity, because each of us is a poetry.”

“Ideology shrinks the brain, makes the heart small and the hands paralysed. Shun ideologies, and try to have equality in access to technologies. This will make the Internet a better place,” he added.

Pope Francis also warned young people not to “‘overspecialize’: specialization is needed, but without losing the connection to wholeness and the connection to harmony. The key word is harmony.”

Stick to communicating the whole truth

The Pope also emphasised the menace “of half-truths. According to him, “news cannot be pruned but must be offered all to all. We need fidelity to the news and the facts!” He added that “news that creates monsters, goes down the road of unreality”.

He also stated again that dialogue is necessary for real democracy, “but needs agreement, which is a very human thing. The language of separation is wrong, if two of us think differently we have to think about the agreement we can make to move forward. This is the mystique of the outstretched hand,” he reiterated.

The Holy Father concluded that “through dialogue, we create humanity in people.” – Vatican News