‘Surreal’ and ‘inspiring’ are two of the words Melbourne-based university students Louise Luu and Daniel Pertile use to describe their experiences of meeting online with Pope Francis and other Catholic students from around the Asia–Pacific on Thursday 20 June.

The Holy Father hosted the video call as part of the fourth instalment of the Building Bridges Initiative, a unique forum that since 2022 has invited university students from large geographic regions to share honestly with each other and the Pope on issues affecting young people. During the call, students shared their concerns about a range of issues, including mental health, discrimination, and a desire for deeper faith formation and to be included more in Church life.

The fourth event connected students from the Asia–Pacific region, including from Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan, while previous events had facilitated encounters between Pope Francis and students from the Americas, Africa and South Asia.

Organised by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and Loyola University Chicago, the Building Bridges Initiative partnered with six universities in the Asia–Pacific region to support students on a month-long ‘synodal encounter’ leading up to a meeting with the Pope. Australian Catholic University (ACU) was selected to oversee the involvement of university students from across Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, but the Australian students who participated came from a broad range of universities.

Here is the successor of the Prince of the Apostles ... attentively listening and dialoguing with immense joy and energy like he is one of us

Twelve students from the region were selected to speak to Pope Francis about the issues that were discussed in their national sub-groups. Louise and Daniel were among the 20 students (including 5 from Melbourne) who contributed to the discussions informing the presentation given by Elizabeth Fernandez, a business administration and law student at Macquarie University in Sydney, who was chosen along with Seamus Lohrey, a law and public relations student from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, to represent young people from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. While Louise and Daniel didn’t speak during the call with Pope Francis, they joined it online.

Louise, who is studying to be a teacher at the University of New England and who also works as an engagement officer with Aboriginal Catholic Ministry of Victoria, said she was struck by the Pope’s ability ‘to compassionately engage with and hold space for the many concerns that people were bringing to the meeting. I imagine it is quite confronting and overwhelming for him to be dealing with such a multitude of issues simultaneously, while still holding an air of calm and grace.’

She particularly appreciated that he had taken the time to hear all the participants’ concerns, a sentiment echoed by Daniel, who studies biomedicine at the University of Melbourne, where he also serves as president of the Catholic Society.

‘Here is the successor of the Prince of the Apostles ... attentively listening and dialoguing with immense joy and energy like he is one of us,’ he says.

Louise says, that through the whole process, she gained a stronger understanding of ‘the importance of collaborating with others to discuss and brainstorm’ ways to address the difficulties many people experience. It was a ‘journey of connection’ she says, ‘and dialogue was integral in providing me with an enriching spiritual experience.’

Daniel was also impressed by how quickly the qualities of honesty and trust were fostered among the students in their group, knowing that ‘the Church was here to listen’, as was the Pope.

‘From the authentic sharing of ideas, I learnt just how much a person’s unique development informs their concerns,’ he said, stressing the importance of addressing these issues together through dialogue and in a way that upholds human dignity. Louise said she also learnt how important it is ‘to provide people with a safe platform to discuss issues, as many felt that this was the only way that they could speak out on issues that affected them’.

In preparing the meeting, Louise—who is new to the Catholic Church, having been baptised early last year—researched how to build bridges between Aboriginal history and culture and the Catholic faith, while others in the group highlighted a range of important issues, including loneliness, challenges to the family unit, the dangers of social media and the desire for better faith formation.

Another strong theme in the group’s discussions was the need to foster a ‘culture of charity’—something that is close to Daniel’s heart, since it was a ‘journey towards authenticity found in charity’ that led him back to the Catholic faith, he says.

ACU’s Associate Director of Mission and Ministry, Mark Doyle, said the dialogue between the university students in preparation for the online meeting with Pope Francis had been ‘robust, thoughtful and insightful’.

‘The students spoke extremely passionately about various complex issues, and it was clear that they are committed to making the world a better place,’ he said.

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Louise Luu (top right corner) joins the video call with Pope Francis (bottom centre). (Screen shot from video call, available on Loyola University Chicago’s YouTube channel.)

During the conference call with Pope Francis, the 12 students who had been selected to speak were divided into four groups of three, with students sharing personal and common experiences, opinions, appeals and insights with the Pope, ending with a question, most often seeking advice and guidance. The Pope did not address every question and statement directly but picked up on some of the students’ main points and recurring topics.

Elizabeth Fernandez, who comes from a strong Catholic family of 11, said that loneliness and isolation, and a lack of faith formation, were big issues facing young Catholics in Australia today, telling the Pope that many young people are lonely and ‘bombarded by secular ideologies’, while young Catholics are often mocked for their faith and feel overwhelmed in their mission ‘to be beacons of hope’.

To respond to what her group felt to be a lack of appropriate faith formation among many young Catholics, she proposed that all religion teachers be trained catechists and that young people themselves be incentivised to become catechists.

In his reply, the Pope underlined the dangers of isolation. To avoid isolation and loneliness, he said, ‘we must have formation in the faith, to know well what our faith is because this can help us be authentic Christians.’

‘You say that sometimes people mock, persecute, restrict us,’ the Pope said, noting that Christians have been persecuted and ostracised ‘from the very beginning’. The key is to avoid the temptation of developing ‘a lukewarm Christianity, a diluted Christianity that has no substance,’ he said.

‘If they persecute you, endure it because martyrdom is part of Christianity,’ he said.

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Melbourne student Joshua Capolupo (top left) and Sydney student Elizabeth Fernandez (bottom left) join the video call with Pope Francis (bottom centre). (Screen shot from video call, available on Loyola University Chicago’s YouTube channel.)

Seamus Lohrey told the Pope he thinks the Church should not blame people for not attending Mass and instead do more active outreach, directly ministering to people where they are.

‘We expect people to meet our rules instead of us meeting and then elevating them. I am confident that this turns people away from a relationship with Christ and makes our Church unattractive,’ he said. Asking people to ‘meet our requirements before we fully minister it to them … is a contradiction of the word unconditional,’ he said, asking the Pope how the Church could better recognise the dignity of all people and ‘not just regular Mass attendees’.

Pope Francis said that those who bear witness to Christ with their actions are the ones who attract others to the Church. He connected this idea with another student’s concerns about mental health, saying that helping people feel they belong to a group or community and giving people a chance to participate with others are what build up a person’s sense of their human dignity.

‘Belonging is what saves us from vulnerability,’ and vulnerability is connected to mental health, the Pope said, adding that ‘one of the things that affects mental health the most is discrimination.’

The pope told the students that the capacity to love is what makes people grow. ‘Proximity makes us neighbors with no discrimination and with a lot of love.’ The only discrimination they should practice, the Pope said, is to be able ‘to discriminate between true love and false love; always choose true love.’

The Pope thanked the students for everything they said because it allows him to better understand the lives of young people so he can always be close to them. He reminded them he will be traveling to Indonesia and other countries in the region in September, saying he was excited to learn more about their cultures because ‘you have a lot to give’.

A video of the Building Bridges online meeting with Pope Francis can be viewed here.

Banner image: Pope Francis speaks with students from the Asia–Pacific during a video call as part of the Building Bridges Initiative on 20 June. (Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago.)