ROSARIO, Argentina – On Friday’s World Environment Day, Pope Francis joined other religious leaders, nine first ladies from Latin America and the Caribbean, and young people from over 170 cities to trumpet the importance of education in caring for the environment.

The pope took part in a virtual meeting organized by Scholas Occurentes, a papal foundation he created to focus on education, through a pre-taped video message.

“Education listens, or it doesn’t educate,” the pope said. “If you don’t listen, you don’t educate. Education creates culture, or it doesn’t educate. Education teaches us to celebrate, or it doesn’t educate.”

“Someone can tell me, ‘But isn’t education to know things?’” Francis said. “No. That is knowing, but education is to listen, to create culture, to celebrate.”

“In this new crisis that humanity is facing today, where culture has been shown to have lost its vitality, I want to celebrate that Scholas, as a community that educates, as an intuition that grows, opens the doors of the ‘University of Senses’, because educating is seeking the sense of things, is to teach to look for the meaning of things,” the pope said.

Scholas Occurrentes is an international papally recognized organization that claims a presence in 190 countries on five continents, bringing together half a million educational institutions. Its mission is to respond to Pope Francis’ call to create a culture of encounter, bringing young people together as part of an education that generates meaning.

Enrique Palmeyro, one of the founders, welcomed participants to Friday’s event saying that “in this unprecedented time we are together fulfilling our mission.”

Also joining in the interreligious event for the UN-sponsored World Environment Day were Imman Abdel Naby Elhefnawy of Argentina’s Islamic Center; the Great Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar; and Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City.

The idea of ​​the Vatican working together with Scholas and the first ladies emerged last December, when the wives of the presidents of Argentina, Belize, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay met the pope in Rome.

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, first in Europe and later in America, forced the postponement of the presentation of what Scholas defined as an “Educational Pact” in a press release without providing much information as to what this means. The pope in his message and the institution in its press release also spoke about launching the “University of Senses,” but that idea wasn’t explored further during the encounter.

The video conference was attended by nine first ladies:  Argentinean Fabiola Yañez, the Belizean Kim Simplis Barrow, the Brazilian Michelle Bolsonaro, the Colombian María Juliana Ruiz, the Costa Rican Claudia Dobles, the Ecuadorian Rocío González, the Honduran Ana García, the Panamanian Yazmín Colón and the Paraguayan Silvana López-Moreira.

Scholas as a concept was born almost 20 years ago, when Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and with the help of Palmeyro and Jose Maria del Corral, two Argentine teachers, he launched the projects Schools of Neighbors and Schools made Siblings.

As del Corral explained, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed to lead the archdiocese of Argentina’s capital in 2001, the country was going through a major economic crisis. The future pope urged a reform the educational system, because without it, he said, “the country is never going to change.”

“I still remember the origin [of Scholas]: two teachers, two professors, with a bit of craziness and some intuition,” Francis said. “A thing that wasn’t proposed, but lived as we walked along.”

“Not even these two madmen – the founding fathers, as we can call them- imagined that that educational experience in the diocese of Buenos Aires, after twenty years would grow as a new culture, ‘poetically inhabiting this earth,’ as [German poet Friedrich] Hölderlin taught us,” Francis said.

It’s a culture, he said, which harmonizes “the language of thought with feelings and actions.”

“In Scholas, I saw Japanese teachers and students dancing with Colombians. I saw the youth of Israel playing with those of Palestine. I saw students from Haiti thinking with those from Dubai. The children of Mozambique painting with those of Portugal … I saw, between East and West, an olive tree creating a culture of encounter,” he said.

At times, the Scholas event seemed more like a concatenation of people greeting participants, and a reel showing the best-of since the founding of the institution back in 2013, that included the participation of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi. The first ladies read passages of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.

Young people from all over the world shared their experiences in this virtual meeting, including Sonia from Italy, Irva from Haiti and Jorge from the United States, who highlighted the help they received from the foundation and the work they do.

The online event also included video clips presenting the testimonies of young people who allegedly took part in the Scholas activities, with people speaking in Spanish, Portuguese, English and other languages. One of those, a girl speaking in English in a clip titled “Sense,” called for the creation of a culture that is “immune to ridicule.”

“Let’s dissolve traditions, races, spectrums, thoughts, colors and religions, so the only thing left is to be human,” the girl says, as various images are shown, including people of different races.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma