Hundreds of millions of children have been "left behind" as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis said Wednesday.

In a video message released Dec. 16, the pope said that 2020 had witnessed an "unprecedented educational crisis."

"More than a billion children faced disruption in their education. Hundreds of millions of children have been left behind in opportunities for social and cognitive development," he said. 

The pope was speaking to participants in the annual Vatican Youth Symposium, held virtually Dec. 16-17. His address marked the start of a collaboration between the pope's Global Compact on Education, launched in October, and Mission 4.7, a new global initiative promoting the educational target contained in the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDG Target 4.7 says that by 2030 all learners must "acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture's contribution to sustainable development."

In his address, the pope said that the United Nations offered a "unique opportunity" for governments and civil society to renew education worldwide.

He noted that 75 years ago the founders of UNESCO appealed for the "full and equal opportunities for education for all, … the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and … the free exchange of ideas and knowledge … for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other's lives." 

He said: "In our time, in which the global education compact has broken down, I see with satisfaction that governments have recommitted themselves to putting these ideas into practice through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in synergy with the Global Compact on Education."

"At the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals is the acknowledgment that quality education for all is a necessary foundation for protecting our common home and promoting human fraternity. Like the Global Compact on Education, Goal 4 also fundamentally commits all governments to 'ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.'"

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Mission 4.7 was launched on the first day of the symposium, jointly hosted by an organization called SDSN Youth and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The new initiative was launched by former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

The pope concluded his message by saying: "The Global Compact on Education and Mission 4.7 will work together for the civilization of love, beauty and unity." 

"Allow me to tell you that you are the poets of a new human beauty, a new fraternal and friendly beauty, as well as of the preservation of the earth we tread. Do not forget the elderly and grandparents, bearers of the most decisive human values."