When leaders at Loyola University Chicago set out to find a way to discuss the upcoming world Synod of Bishops on synodality with students, they did not set out to host a dialogue with Pope Francis.

But that’s what happened Feb. 24, when the pope engaged in a conversation nearly two hours long with 16 university students from the Americas on a videoconference that touched on themes dear to the pontiff: migration, poverty, the environment and collaboration.

Peter Jones, interim dean of Loyola’s Institute for Pastoral Studies graduate program and one of the event’s coordinators, said after the session that the fact the conversation with the pope happened so quickly was an indication they had successfully discerned the will of the Holy Spirit.

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Several people at the university had been frustrated with the lack of energy in the United States around the synodal process initiated last fall by Pope Francis. As they discussed how they could engage the students and the university in the synodal process, they saw an opportunity.

The Institute for Pastoral Studies had recently hired Emilce Cuda as a part-time faculty member, teaching in the online Spanish-language graduate program. Cuda is an Argentine theologian working in Rome at the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

The original plan was to invite Cuda, who had recently been promoted — in August 2021 — as the commission’s new head of office, to give the opening talk for a synodal series. She suggested that instead of talking about synodality, the university should model it by facilitating a synodal encounter among students.

This February, Cuda was appointed secretary of the commission and is now one of the highest-ranking women at the Vatican.

Jones noted that in her role at the pontifical commission, Cuda’s charge is to connect people between North and South. “Our societies are intertwined in ways that we often take for granted, especially here in the North,” Jones said.

As they discussed the project, Jones said, he’s not sure who first suggested it but that as kind of a joke they said they should invite Pope Francis.

“This is his jam, this is exactly what he wants people to be doing,” Jones said. Cuda approached the pope and described the idea, and around Christmas time, he agreed.

“We didn’t come into this with a goal or an objective to get the pope on a Zoom call with students,” he said.

“We wanted them to talk and we wanted to listen and we wanted to walk with them as faculty and as advisers to help them enter into the process with a desire for connection, not with a desire to win an argument,” he added.

The initiative grew to include 130 students from 58 universities in 21 countries who met in work groups.

The involvement of the pope altered the vision for what was possible.

Since this program was focused on “Building Bridges North-South,” Jones said the next logical step is to build bridges between East and West.

During the event, Pope Francis complimented Aleja Sastoque, a native of Colombia who recently completed master’s degrees at Loyola, on the fact that she spoke Spanish in her presentation.

“The fact you talked in the language of your ancestors means you didn’t forget your roots. These roots became jewels for you,” he told Sastoque, who now serves as a faith formation campus minister at Loyola.

In an interview after the event, Sastoque said she appreciated the pope’s point during the conversation that even as Jesus is the door through whom we reach God, Jesus also is knocking on the door to get outside the church.

“I think that’s very powerful and it’s an invitation for him to us to say OK, let’s work together and let’s go outside because that’s where people need us. There is where the Gospel needs to be proclaimed,” she said.

Sastoque said the advance meetings to prepare for the discussion were originally divided by regions: South America, Central America, North America and the Caribbean. Her group included members from Central America, the U.S. and Canada.

The question “if you had the opportunity to meet the pope, what would you ask?” prompted the brainstorming process.

As the students from a variety of disciplines discussed the topic of migration, they realized it affected not just border crossings but also the environment, economics and political changes.

The process “was a blast,” she recalled, and she was eventually selected as one of the four from her group to make a presentation to the pope.

“I think that’s powerful when he encouraged us to keep doing it to look for other kinds of experiences outside of the church, outside of the university, outside of your house,” she said.

She said the next step is for these groups and others inspired by the discussion to continue developing similar projects and proposals. “We don’t want the projects stuck on paper, but also to be a reality,” Sastoque said.

To that end, Loyola University is extending the Building Bridges Initiative, based for now within the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at the university, www.luc.edu/ccih.

Gunty is associate publisher/editor of Catholic Review Media, the publishing arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.