ROME — Striving to promote an inclusive model of education, Pope Francis used a Google Hangout on Thursday to reach out to students with disabilities and special needs in the United States, Brazil, India, and Spain, in a session that focused especially on how technology can help these students adapt.
“What you do, from where you are, helps all of us to understand that life is a treasure that only has a meaning if we give it,” Francis said.
This was the second time the pontiff took part in a Google Hangout organized by Scholas Ocurrentes, the pontiff’s pet project that aims to connect schools throughout the world, regardless of their religious orientation or if they are state-run or private institutions.
Pope Francis talked with eight young people: Isaias and Taylor, both 18, joined from Nebraska in the United States; Isaias briefly described his struggles with a growth hormone deficiency. Manoj, 13, from India is deaf, while Pedro from Brazil, 12, has a congenital malformation. There were four Spaniards: Isabel, 13, is blind; Bautista, 14, has autism, and Alicia, 17, and Elvira, 11, both have Down Syndrome.
Isaiah told the pope he has had to overcome many obstacles.
“One of my main struggles is to share my thoughts in a way that allows me to keep up with my class,” he said. The use of technology has allowed him to do things faster and stay up to date.
He then asked Francis what he does when facing difficulty.
The pope said that at first, he tries to stay calm. Then, he tries to find a way to overcome the difficulty and, if it’s not possible, to simply endure it.
“Never be afraid when facing a difficulty,” Francis said. “You need time to learn, intelligence to find the way, and courage to keep going. But never be afraid.”
Manoj, who described himself as a big fan of martial arts action star Bruce Lee, asked Francis about Scholas and what this organization, promoted by the Church, can do to help children with disabilities.
Francis said that Scholas can help by building bridges and allowing the youth to communicate to each other.
“When you communicate, you give the best of yourself to others,” the pontiff said. “When we don’t, we stay enclosed inside our own limitations.”
By giving and receiving, Francis said, “we’re not alone.”
Since its creation in 2013, Scholas has been in touch with more than 400,000 schools around the world and will continue to do so through three platforms: Scholas.labs, Scholas.social, and Scholas.education, all of them destined to build bridges between students, teachers and institutions.
To do so, Scholas has the support of Google, IBM, Microsoft, and other international technology companies.
Alicia, also from Spain, shared with the pope her love of filmmaking and, in all her innocence, asked the pontiff if he enjoys taking photos and downloading them into his computer.
“In all honesty,” Francis said, “I’m a dinosaur!” The pontiff said he doesn’t use a phone to take pictures, and also later said he doesn’t have a tablet and doesn’t know how to use one.
Pedro, from Brazil, shared his challenges with using his computer as a result of a shortened left arm. He also said that he likes playing soccer as a way to connect with his friends.
“Thank you,” Francis said, “because with your example, you teach us that what’s important isn’t winning, but to play with our friends.”
The Argentinian pontiff seemed enthusiastic about the use of technology to empower students with disabilities, even though he has often seemed ambivalent toward social media and the Internet.
Despite having the most influential Twitter account on a followers/retweets basis, for instance, last August he told young people that “chatting on the Internet or with smartphones (and) watching TV soap operas” are futile and a waste of time.
On the other hand, Francis has also described the Internet as “something truly good … a gift from God.”
“Media can help us greatly,” he said in January 2014. “Especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.”
Francis isn’t the first pope to embrace technology. His predecessor, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, was the first pope to use Twitter, and John Paul II was the first pope to issue a papal document online by punching a button on a laptop in a Vatican ceremony.
During Thursday’s hangout, Isabel, from Spain, said she wanted to use the opportunity to tell the people with disabilities “not to give up” because with effort, “they can get as far as they want.”
Toward the end, when addressing the more than 250 participants in the IV International Education Symposium organized by Scholas, Francis said that the world needs to rebuild the “educational pact.”
“Something I’m really concerned about are harmonies,” he said. “This doesn’t mean to compromise, to make arrangements or partial understanding. It means to accept and value differences and allow them to harmonize.”
Francis said it will be impossible to change the world without education.
“I thought the educational pact was only broken in Latin America, but no,” he said. “That harmony that we should have between families, schools, the nation, and culture is broken, and we can’t glue it back together.”
According to Francis, societies, families, and institution have delegated the education of future generations exclusively to teachers, who are then reproached if they don’t succeed.
“I want to pay a tribute to teachers,” Francis said. “They grabbed a ‘hot potato’ and dared to move on. Scholas aims to reintegrate everybody’s efforts toward education.”