Pope Francis fields questions from students about gender identity and LGBTQ discrimination

Pope Francis general audience Pope Francis waves to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. | Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis participated in a live Q-and-A video call with university students on Thursday in which a bisexual student from the Philippines asked the pope to stop using “offensive language” and an Australian student expressed concern that teachers in Catholic schools are espousing gender theory.

In the one-hour conversation on June 20 organized by Loyola University’s Building Bridges Initiative, Pope Francis spoke directly to students from across the Asia-Pacific region.

Jack Lorenz Acebedo Rivera, a psychology student from a Catholic university in Manila who introduced himself as “JLove,” told the pope about how he feels stigmatized.

“I myself am outcasted and bullied due to my bisexuality, my gayness, my identity, and being the son of a single parent,” Acebedo said.

“My mother cannot divorce my father. Please allow divorce in the Philippines and stop using offensive language against the LGBTQIA+ community. This leads to immense pain. Due to this, I developed bipolar disorder and I am stigmatized,” the Filipino student added.

Elizabeth Fernandez, a law and business student from Sydney, expressed how many Catholic university students today feel “bombarded by circular ideologies, mock for our faith, and outnumbered in our mission to be beacons of hope.”

“We are also concerned that many young people receive shallow faith formation. Some religion teachers in Catholic schools use class time to preach their own agendas of abortion, contraception, and gender theory,” she said.

“We propose that all religion teachers be trained catechists and that young people be incentivized to become catechists themselves,” Fernandez said. “We want young people to also have greater access to confession and to have Christ integrated into all school subjects, thereby fostering a culture of greater reverence for the Eucharist.”

The Australian student also asked the pope to pray for her mother, Donna, who is the mother of nine children and was recently diagnosed with cancer.

The video livestream showed Pope Francis carefully taking notes on a piece of paper on his desk as each of the university students spoke and shared their concerns. The pope listened to multiple students before answering their questions all together as a group.

In his response, Pope Francis noted that the question of one’s personal identity was a recurring theme mentioned by many of the students. 

Pope Francis underlined that problems of discrimination can be solved with closeness and proximity.

Speaking in Spanish to the students who listened to a simultaneous English translation, the pope said that there is “discrimination against people based on identity,” including “gender discrimination.” The English translator on the video call translated this for the students as discrimination due to “sexual identity or orientation or gender discrimination,” although Pope Francis did not use the words “sexual identity or orientation.”

Francis went on to focus much of his response on the problem of discrimination against women in which women are treated as if they are in “a second category,” adding “but we see that today in the world women are the best leaders … and are superior to men in their ability to create community.”

“The capacity for motherhood gives women a much more effective position of action than men and this is important,” Pope Francis said.

“To sum up, no to discrimination … and yes to proximity, closeness,” he said. “This is what leads us to love.”

Pope Francis also addressed the issue of Catholic education, stressing the importance of having good faith formation so that young people know their faith well and are led to become “authentic Christians.”

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In response to Elizabeth’s concern that Catholic students are mocked for their faith on campus, Pope Francis told her “Christians have always been persecuted from the very beginning.”

The pope warned that with persecution comes the temptation to “lukewarm Christianity” but underlined that “martyrdom is part of Christianity.”

In total, 12 students from Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand spoke to Pope Francis in the video call.

Hseih Hsiang, an electrical engineering student from Taiwan, told the pope: “Although Catholics are a minority in Taiwan, we have the freedom of sharing our faith without being threatened or not respected.”

In response to a concern from a student from Indonesia about technology isolating young people, Pope Francis said that technology can help, but it is not sufficient. He stressed the importance for young people to have a sense of belonging and asked the students to reflect on what is the real meaning of “belonging.”

The Building Bridges Initiative described the event as “a synodal encounter between Pope Francis and university students,” noting that the event was not officially part of the Synod on Synodality. 

Pope Francis will travel to the Asia Pacific region Sept. 2–13 in which he will visit Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Singapore.

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