Pope Francis Building Bridges

Not your average Zoom

Loyola University Chicago will put students in direct conversation with Pope Francis at historic virtual encounter

To call it unprecedented would be an understatement. While some have waited months—and even years—to get time with Pope Francis, Loyola University Chicago somehow snagged a slot on the pontiff's calendar in just six weeks.  

For the first time in his papacy, Pope Francis will participate in a virtual dialogue with university students from across North, South, and Central America. Loyola is at the center of this historic encounter, putting the Pope in direct conversation with students from Loyola and other universities across the Americas to discuss the ever-complex issue of migration.  

“I need someone who is a historian to research how many barriers we've broken without even trying,” Peter Jones, interim dean of the Institute of Pastoral Studies (IPS), says of the event.  

What began as a Loyola community gathering to engage in the Pope’s synodal process has grown into something the organizers could have only dreamed of. Jones, along with Mike Murphy, director of the Joan and Bill Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage, as well as Loyola faculty members Felipe Legarreta and Miguel Diaz, initially invited Argentine moral theologian and recent IPS adjunct faculty member Emilce Cuda as the event’s keynote speaker. Cuda had recently been appointed by Pope Francis as the head the office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, making her one of the most senior lay women in the Catholic Church and a close confidante of the Pope. 

The group began planning the event and hoped it could lift up student voices and connect young people from different backgrounds to share their experiences. Pope Francis has long talked about the role of young people in the church, spurring the group to jokingly suggest inviting him to the event. “We thought, this kind of thing is right up Pope Francis’ alley. We should just invite him to join us,” Jones says. Cuda extended the invitation, and the Pope accepted.  

“We probably should not have been as surprised as we were that the Pope said yes,” Jones says. Francis is the first Jesuit Pope, and, as a Jesuit institution, Loyola has long engaged in the social justice-driven work championed by Francis. Plus, students are at the center of much of what Loyola does. “The Pope doesn't want to talk to professors, or bishops, or politicians, or leaders, or those powerful folks who already have a platform for their voices to be heard. He wants to listen to the students and support their work and motivate them to be passionate about changing the world,” Jones explains. 

“I can't wait for the Pope to talk to our [students],” says Murphy, who has helped facilitate a group from across borders prepare for the dialogue. “They speak eloquently on complex social problems, from climate crisis to violent regimes that cause migration, to deeper spiritualities, to polarization issues, to exclusion, inclusion, and belonging.” 

"[The Pope] wants to listen to students... and motivate them to be passionate about changing the world."
— Peter Jones, interim dean, Institute of Pastoral Studies 

One young person who will have the opportunity to ask Pope Francis a question during the virtual encounter is Loyola alumna Aleja Sastoque Luna. A native of Colombia and currently a faith formation campus minister for the University, Sastoque Luna understands deeply the magnitude of such an opportunity.  

“As young adults, we always hear that we will be the future, but I think we are the present and our generation has a lot to give to the world,” says Sastoque Luna, who will represent more than 20 students from the event’s Central United States and Canada regional group. “We will be challenging not only Pope Francis but the whole church to confront migration, economic issues, social justice, global warming, diversity, equity, and many other realities that we are facing today. The fact that someone like Pope Francis is willing to hear the voices of university students makes me dream of big changes that will give our society hope, peace, and love.”  

For Loyola, this historic event has put the scholarship, research, and social justice work of the University on a global stage. “It's a recognition of the work we've been doing,” says Murphy. And there’s more to come. The organizers hope the event will be a kick-off for a larger cross-collaborative initiative. “We're in a really strong position to be of service to other universities,” Murphy says. “We're in the position to be a hub.” 

Jones and Murphy alike look to the Holy Spirit to make sense of how such an extraordinary occasion came to be and what it will mean for Loyola moving forward.  

“I think we uncovered something the Holy Spirit was long working on—a shared desire and yearning among people all over that we just happened concretize. We came up with an idea that expresses it. And Pope Francis is ready to support it because he sees it, too,” says Jones. “We're trying not to get in the Spirit’s way.”