Pope Francis joins college students of the Americas to talk about migration

Pope Francis’ general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Feb. 23, 2022 Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Pope Francis spoke with college students from the Americas on Thursday, listening to their thoughts on migration and the situation of migrants and emphasizing the need for everyone to build bridges between the global north and south.

“This is the vocation of Christians. Christ came to be a ‘bridge’ between the father and us,” he said.

The Feb. 24 event, “Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and University Students”, was livestreamed Feb. 24 with live translation in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. Students from 58 universities and 21 countries participated by videoconference.

“I am a child of migrants,” said Pope Francis. “Migrants have to be received, they must be accompanied. Migrants must be promoted, they must be integrated.” He encouraged every country to be honest about how many migrants it can receive and to work with other countries.

He advised the students to “respond in an intelligent way, a heartful, way also. A pragmatic way, with mind, heart and hands.”

“This is not an epoch of change, but a change of epochs,” he said, repeating a phrase he often uses. “How can we manage these changes?” the pope asked.

Student groups in various regions and countries had met previously to discuss how to respond to migration, and students spoke to Pope Francis to present their conclusions.

The event addressed problems of migration, the situations and forces that cause people to migrate, and the situations that face migrants in receiving countries. Many of the participating students were migrants or from migrant families.

Various remarks touched on causal factors: food insecurity, the search for employment, and structural problems that seem to favor the wealthy or give the country’s wealth to foreign companies that extract natural resources. They also discussed violence, including organized crime, as a factor leading people to migrate.

In receiving countries, migrants face stigma and discrimination, difficulties in accessing basic needs and rights, and face trouble maintaining their roots while integrating into society. Their labor plays a vital role in the countries that receive them, while their remittances play a vital role as well.

Eric Bazail-Emil, a Georgetown University student, told the pope that his student group saw that “the inhumane conditions of migration today demand concrete responses in our communities.”

“We see how language barriers and unjust laws exclude undocumented migrants from access to quality health care, affordable housing and dignified work,” he said. Cultural and linguistic diversity can be a challenge to welcoming immigrants to “full participation in society” and to creating “friendships rooted in hospitality” through a common language. His student group had suggested forming a database of language professionals to help migrants and refugees through legal process, access to medical care, and social inclusion.

One immigrant to the U.S. who spoke was Colombia native Aleja Sastoque Luna, an alumna of Loyola University Chicago who serves as a faith formation campus minister at the university.

She invoked the memory of many people who tried to migrate but failed, some even dying on the way.

“They had a dream and their dream is mine,” she told Pope Francis. “I was fortunate to secure a scholarship to study in the United States. I took a leap of faith. I had to learn a new language. I miss my family and my culture.”

She has worked jobs she “could never imagine” like construction worker, landscaper, or nanny, “anything to achieve my goal.”

“My story is the same as many others,” she continued. “There is a lot of frustration with the increasingly toxic narrative that surrounds immigrants and displaced people. We are often described with discriminatory language: rapist murderers, drug addicts, drug dealers.”

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Instability in American politics in 2020 made her and thousands of other international students wonder if they would be deported, she said.

“We are dreamers… and workers. People who help to offer the best to every country,” she said, adding that students are “working to build bridges that should already have been constructed.”

Alejandro Paracia from Colombia represented students at the Catholic University of Costa Rica. He cited Pope Francis’ 2020 apostolic exhortation La querida Amazonia on the importance of caring for cultural roots, which give “the strength that will make you grow, flourish and bear fruit.”

“The context in which we live is a coexistence of many peoples, many cultures,” the student reflected. “Unfortunately, we know if we are obliged to leave our homes, we are at risk of losing this great wealth of identity, and also losing the connections with our families if we are far from them, with all the social consequences that this involves.”

“You invite us to dream of a new culture that develops men and women and that safeguards their roots and guarantees a worthy life, a life with dignity,” he told the pope. To implement these cultural dreams, he said, would “recover the real meaning of Catholicity as something universal, global and without borders.”

Pope Francis gave various responses to the students. He said societies that receive immigrants should realize that children of migrants respect their own roots.

“We must respect their roots and also integrate them,” he said. “We cannot integrate the migrant but make them forget their own roots. That is not integration.”

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The pope emphasized that God is “close, merciful, and tender.” He rejected the mindset that sees the Church as a “closed Church.” Rather, it should be “open to anyone.”

He invoked the example of a priest who responded to the situation of immigrants who did not know where they could eat. He set up a table in the church to feed them.

Some United States students voiced concern that climate change was victimizing the poor and driving people to migrate. They advocated for more environmental preaching from Catholic clergy, Catholic efforts to organize for “science-based climate action”, and “non-violent direct action” to address the “climate crisis.”

“Non-violence is the way that brings us to sincerity. We have to refuse any forms of hypocrisy,” Pope Francis commented. “Please don’t enter the game of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy poisons everything.”

The online gathering comes as the Catholic Church is engaged in two-year global consultation process to prepare for the 2023 Synod on Synodality. This synod aims to encounter and listen to churchgoing Catholics, Catholics who don’t go to church, ex-Catholics, and non-Catholics, and discern what they have to say.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago also spoke, giving an official welcome to the pope. He discussed a “spirt of synodality” and praised the students he said understood the need to “build bridges” rather than walls. He encouraged people not to be afraid of questions they find hard to answer.

“Be prepared for surprises,” Cupich said, adding that Christ is “always doing something new.”

Michael Murphy, director of Loyola University’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, opened the event with a prayer for peace. He gave a greeting message and welcomed the Pope. Murphy characterized bridge-building as “essential to the Gospel,” saying “no person is able to live without love.” He cited the words of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, “love alone is credible.”

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