ROME— Pope Francis has become an undisputed media icon over his first three years in office, and on Sunday he rubbed shoulders with some of his fellow global celebrities, including George Clooney, Richard Gere and Salma Hayek, who received an award in the Vatican for their work fighting global warming, war and terrorism.
“When peoples, families, friends separate, only animosity and even hatred can come out of that division. But when they come together in a ‘social friendship,’ we find a defense against every kind of throwaway culture,” Francis said.
The award, “Medal of the Olive,” was presented by the Scholas Occurentes Pontifical foundation, a pet-project of Francis, first conceived when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and which has become a worldwide network of schools that through sports, technology and arts tries to promote the “culture of encounter.”
Pope Francis arrived over 90 minutes later than expected, after running over time in a Scolas-sponsored session with a group of “Youtubers.”
Representing a group of 12 Youtube aficionados, Dulce Candy and Matthew Patrick, who have 2.4 and 6.3 million followers respectively, asked Francis to respond to these questions when the event began: “Have you ever considered resigning because of the excessive responsibilities?” and, “What can we do to help create a more diverse and integrated world?”
To the first question Francis said that no, “I never considered resigning because of the responsibilities,” and reiterated what he’s said before about receiving “a great peace” in the moment of his election “which I didn’t expect.”
This peace, he said, remains with him today and is what keeps him going.
The second question was harder to answer for the pope, who, following a recent tendency of carrying pictures or objects with him to make a point, showed several pictures given to him of children killed at war.
“A nun sent me pictures of what’s going on in an African country, marred by constant wars,” he said showing the first image. “This child was beheaded. A child.”
He tied the victims of war into bullying, a topic one of the speakers had addressed earlier.
“Seeing what happens in this country, we can understand bullying. If a child can be beheaded, how could we not have bullying?” Francis added. “It’s the same cruelty, against a child, done by a child.”
“Bullying is an agression that hides a lot of cruelty,” he said. “The world is cruel. And wars are a monument to that cruelty.”
To build a better world, Francis said, “we must banish pride and arrogance. Those who take these paths end badly … the world needs less of these and more tenderness, more gentleness.”
Francis’ words along with the recognition to the Hollywood stars, came at the closing of the VI Scholas World Encounter, which took place May 27-29 in the Vatican. Over 400 people from 190 countries participated in the encounter, which included representatives of 42 universities, Catholic, lay and Muslim, from around the world such as Fordham University and John Carroll University from the United States, Ishik University of Iraq, and the Nigerian Turkish Nile University.
Participating in the workshop were students, teachers, business owners, trade unions, academics, politicians, athletes, artists, Youtubers, scientists and religious leaders, all working in what organizers call “making the mandate of Pope Francis to restore reality in the world the educational pact.”
As is usually the case in Scholas events, several projects were presented. One of those was “Ask Pope Francis,” a book that will be written by Francis answering questions from young people around the world, who are being invited to submit their questions through the website.
Other projects included an agreement among 39 universities to build a system of “patronage” with schools for low-income students, and the Scholas Orchestra, active in several countries, which aims to take underprivileged children from the streets through music.
To make the wait shorter for those who arrived on time to the Vatican’s Synod Hall, several planned and “improvised” speeches were given.
One of these “outside the program moments,” was when the master of ceremonies approached Clooney, who was accompanied by his wife Amal Alamuddin.
“Bouna sera, buona sera,” the actor joked, before saying he doesn’t speak Italian.
“I would suggest that this is a wonderful program that we’re working on here today, to see so many religions talking about inclusion,” Clooney said.
“We have to start with schools, because we know that hatred and bigotry has to be taught. We’re not born this way, it’s a learned behavior. Pope Francis is focusing on schools, because he knows that this is the only way we’re going to fight it.”
Among the participants were not only Hollywood stars, but also several Jewish and Muslim leaders.
A rabbi from the Israeli University of Haifa also spoke before Francis’ arrival. He too thanked the pontiff for bringing together the whole world “to think what’s better for our kids.”
“Seeing a global leader of Pope Francis’ stature, willing to risk his credibility for the future of our children, is something that should inspire us all,” the rabbi said.
Francis’ reference to bullying came after listening to the words of Ariadna, a 17-year-old Mexican student living in Chicago, who moved the room to tears by talking about the suffering she went through in school.
It was her, not Francis, Clooney, Hayek or Gere who stole the spotlight.
From the sixth to the nine grade, Ariadna said, she was mocked by her peers and pushed around. She saw her first attempt at writing in English, in which she spoke about her family and the difficulties she went through when her parents divorced, destroyed and thrown in the garbage can.
“I felt like all my feelings, all my life, was being thrown away,” she said. “I didn’t belong.”
The insult that hurt the most, she said, was when her classmates told her she was “worthless” and that she would never “accomplish anything.”
Ariadna also shared that she’d decided to stay in the school first because she wanted to learn to forgive those who bullied her. She went back the third year, she said, on the advice of a priest.
“He told me that sometimes we don’t realize that Jesus too suffered on the Cross, and if he went through that for us, how couldn’t I go through this for Him?” she said. “I offered that pain to God, and I understood that even when you’re bullied, you have to learn to forgive.”
“They might be able to hurt me, but they won’t be able to take my smile from me,” Ariadna said.