This story originally appeared in The Vantage student newspaper, March 3, 2022. Quotes from Sonja Bontrager and Emily Simon were added to the original story.
By Austin Schwartz, staff writer for The Vantage
Members of the Newman community got to hang out with the pope last week.
On Feb. 24, Newman was part of a Zoom event hosted by Loyola University Chicago called “Building Bridges: A Synodal Encounter Between Pope Francis and Universities.”
More than 58 universities from 21 different countries participated in the live, virtual event. The viewing at Newman was organized by the Spanish department, Campus Ministry, and the Gerber Institute.
Participants had the choice of watching the Zoom session in Spanish, English or Portuguese. Those watching in Spanish sat in the Tarcisia Roths Alumni Center, while the English session was hosted in the adjacent conference room. Students who wanted to listen in Portuguese had to pull up the live session themselves.
Newman had 20 people — faculty, staff and students — attend: 12 at the English session and the other eight in the Spanish session.
Sonja Bontrager, assistant professor of Spanish at Newman, considered the unique opportunity via Zoom a “moving and inspiring” experience.
“I got to see a different persona from Pope Francis as he spoke with the students in his native language,” Bontrager said. “It was amazing to witness Spanish-speaking students connect with the Pope in this way, and it was incredibly touching to be a part of this historic experience.”
She continued, “As Pope Francis or ‘El Papa Francisco’ spoke in Spanish, his way of speaking revealed his ‘cariño,’ or a loving warmth in his personality that seemed to resonate and inspire trust with the Spanish-speaking students on the Zoom call. I was surprisingly moved at hearing him speak Spanish, and I think most of us who listened were touched by his attentive listening and warm expression to the students. They responded with more emotion and heart as well.”
For Emily Simon, assistant director of Campus Ministry and the Honors Program, it was important for the Newman community to see the pope interact with university students.
“He took the time to take notes and address all the participating students individually about their points after they finished speaking. He clearly was just so excited to hear them speak,” Simon explained. “I’m truly excited that Newman University could watch this interaction take place. It shows that the Catholic Church is not only alive and vibrant, but ready to listen to each other.”
Hearing from the pope
The broadcast featured Pope Francis’ discussion with 12 different students from universities across the Americas and was focused on migrants and refugees. Pope Francis said during the meeting that he found this to be an important topic because he is from a family of immigrants living in Argentina.
Pope Francis went on to encourage everyone to embrace their roots.
“When roots are lost, a culture is lost, so it depends on the young people to understand and continue the roots found within the old people,” he said. “Thus, it’s very important to respect the migrant’s roots.”
Mathew Umbarger, Newman professor of theology, said he appreciated Pope Francis’ message.
“What most impressed itself on me was how Pope Francis, in each of his responses, drew the audience back to the fundamental message of the Gospel,” Umbarger said.
The students on the broadcast brought up the impact of climate change on refugees and the prophecy of non-violence and encouraged Pope Francis to hold future discussions with students.
Throughout the discussion, Pope Francis was consistently taking notes and responded to the students methodically.
“Violence will always destroy, never construct,” he told the students. “God is three things: close, merciful and tender. He does not represent violence. He represents harmony. Thus, this is the life we should seek. Never enter the game of hypocrisy.”
Umbarger said he believes that student discussions like this will become a permanent feature of the papacy. He also said that impacts from this discussion may be coming sooner than we think.
“Quite possibly, some of these things will be taken up into future expressions of his pontificate,” he said. “In particular, I would not be surprised if we soon hear of a directive to bishops and pastors to increase their pastoral presence and to more explicitly address ecological justice in their preaching.”
Bontrager recalled a particularly meaningful statement Pope Francis shared toward the end of the call.
“Pope Francis asked where was the biggest church God had ever created, and answered ‘en la calle,'” Bontrager said. “This might seem to translate into ‘in the street,’ but it effectively means ‘out among the people.’ He emphasized the importance of building relationships with others, honoring cultural roots as the students bear fruit in life, and to always have hope.”
Anyone who would like to watch the Zoom discussion can find it on Youtube: