ROME – Next month young people will take center-stage at a large Assisi-based digital event exploring “The Economy of Francis” in the wake of the coronavirus, with the goal of finding and proposing new global models based on solidarity and inclusion.

Speaking to journalists during the Oct. 27 presentation of the event, Luigino Bruni, an economics professor at Rome’s Maria Santissma Assunta University, pointed to a wave of protests throughout Italy in response to new coronavirus restrictions, noting that a number of young people have participated in the demonstrations.

Yet while some youth are protesting, “others are preparing for the Economy of Francis,” Bruni said, adding that young people “are also many things; not only protests but also proposals.”

“They also protest by proposing,” he said. “They are able to and must protest, but they are also capable of, and we see it, a future, commitment, and serenity at a much higher level than we can imagine.”

Similarly, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, a professor of political economics at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences, said young participants have been active in the lead-up to the 3-day conference.

She said there will be a “broad” representation from young people from across the world, who will offer suggestions to perplexing questions in the areas of employment, the economy and the environment.

Noting that the coronavirus hit after the event – originally scheduled for March but which was postponed until November due to COVID-19 – had already been planned, Smerilli said the young people scheduled to attend took the extra time to develop their ideas and proposals.

“There is a lot on how to think about an economy after this collective evil that requires a collective response,” she said, adding that the idea during the event is to provide space for young people to present their proposals to government officials.

“The first proposal from young people is what they want to commit to, how they want to network, and on the basis of this what they ask of us adults and institutions who can do something to change,” Smerilli said, adding that in her view, young people “have it very clear what others consider naïve, the need to work together (to find solutions) to what is happening.”

Once the event begins, she said, “don’t just look for big names, but go to the youth and listen what they are proposing (as) a response to come out of this crisis better.”

Set to take place in the iconic town of Assisi Nov. 19-21, “The Economy of Francis” was originally set to gather some 2,000 young people together in the birthplace of the pope’s namesake, but it was postponed due to coronavirus restrictions.

Now taking place in a mostly digital format, the summit will draw together students in advanced economics, managers in social enterprises, Nobel Prize winners and representatives from international organizations to discuss

Currently, there are around 2,000 young people from 115 countries around the world who have already signed up.

For nine months they have been preparing in groups called “villages” dedicated to specific topics ranging from employment and management, agriculture and poverty, to the pursuit of happiness and the inclusion of women.

According to Smerilli, while each “village” focused on a different issue, two topics that came out as major themes in each one were the need to promote and empower women in the world of economics and finance, and to the need to find a COVID-19 vaccine that is ethically made and distributed.

There will be no general document summarizing the event’s discussion, but young people, Smerilli said, will instead compile their proposals for commitments to make and requests for assistance.

Next month’s event will take place against the backdrop of rising tensions as the impact of the coronavirus and continued restrictions are beginning to wear down those who are already weary from months of lockdown, lost business, limited travel and rapidly changing business dynamics.

In the pope’s own backyard, protests erupted throughout Italy after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte over the weekend announced the latest round of new restrictions as Italy’s infection rates continue to rise, including orders for bars and restaurants to close at 6p.m. and the complete closure of cinemas and gyms.

In Rome, Milan, Turin, and Naples, people have taken to the streets in opposition to the national directive as well as additional regional restrictions. With the loss of mass tourism and limited business hours taking an additional toll on Italy’s sprawling restaurant and hotel industries, poverty levels have shot through the roof as millions of people now find themselves unemployed with little compensation from the government and no savings left to cushion another lockdown.

Speaking during an Oct. 27 media roundtable, Smerilli, who oversees the economic working group of the Vatican’s COVID-19 taskforce, said the group is working at all levels with various organizations and institutions to come up with solutions, “starting from those who don’t have a voice.”

As an ecclesial body, “We cannot make decisions, but we can try to send messages” to those in power, she said, adding, “We must ensure that the message arrives with the perspective and experience of those in greatest difficulty.”

Father Augusto Zampini, adjunct secretary for the Vatican department for Integral Human Development which oversees the COVID taskforce, told journalists during the roundtable that the pandemic has “exacerbated” crises that already existed in the economic, environmental and healthcare fields, and has shown the world’s “incapacity to address a common problem with common solutions.”

Outlining the work of the taskforce so far, Zampini said they are operating in a 5-stage process beginning with evaluating the needs of local areas and ending with building a resource network able to respond to those needs.

Ultimately, by 2021 the taskforce wants to pitch a 7-year commitment plan in which each sector of society commits to concrete actions in terms of recovery from the pandemic and achieving the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

“We know we have tough times ahead. We are just starting with economic problems, and there are more to come,” Zampini said, insisting that the taskforce’s work can offer an initial reading of situation and possible solutions.

To that end, he advocated for a universal basic income, which he says the taskforce has researched in-depth, for debt forgiveness for impoverished nations, and for greater justice and equality for the poor, particularly when it comes to a vaccination.

“We have been accused of being communists, of being liberal” for these suggestions, he said, but added that “it’s okay, because we have to propose concrete things, a broader vision, to decision-makers. I don’t envy them because they have to make tough decisions in a complicated time.”

The taskforce this month – which Pope Francis has dedicated to praying for women to have greater leadership roles in the Church – is also focusing specifically on the issue of women; how the coronavirus has impacted them, and what they can offer in terms of “coming out of this better,” Zampini said.

He said the taskforce reports directly to Pope Francis and each week sends a report to the pontiff, who will also make a star appearance during “The Economy of Francis” event.

Francis is scheduled to give the closing address for the gathering, which will be broadcast from five iconic locations in Assisi, including the basilica of St. Francis and the Church of San Damaso, where St. Francis said Jesus spoke to him from a crucifix, telling him to rebuild his Church.

Young people have long been seen by the pope as hope for the future and as possible agents of change, so it is unsurprising that they will be discussing topics close to the pontiff’s heart, such as the care of creation, the talents of women, an economy of ‘shared bread,’ and the need for fraternity.

The event will be broken up into keynote talks, panels, prayer and some theatrical performances.

According to Bruni, the economy of third millennium “is going to be different” than it is now, because the coronavirus has revealed the need for change, as “this system of the 21st century no longer works.”

“Yesterday’s economy was entirely external, all played on external goods, and thus it neglected too many invisible goods, such as relational goods and moral goods,” he said, adding that “spiritual capital is the first asset that companies lack, the effects of which we have seen and continue to see.”

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