ROME – In an online discussion with African university students Tuesday, Pope Francis condemned both past and current forms of exploitation and colonization, decrying terrorism wrought by fundamentalist groups, the global arms trade, and those who “rape the earth” through deforestation.

He urged the youths to be cautious, but courageous and brave in their efforts to overcome continental and national challenges, telling them: “Continue to be strong, continue to struggle with all of your youth, the feelings you have, and all of your strength and unity. Please, continue to struggle.”

The Nov. 1 event, titled “Building Bridges Across Africa: A Synodal Encounter between Pope Francis and African University Students,” was organized in by the Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network, Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, Loyola University Chicago, and DePaul University.

It focused on the theme of “Ubuntu: A culture of encounter; we all belong.” Ubuntu is an ancient African word loosely meaning “humanity to others,” and is often used to reinforce the importance of communal ties under the heading that, “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

During the discussion, Pope Francis stressed the importance of social and political involvement and praised Africa’s rich biodiversity and natural resources, but condemned the exploitation of many African resources and lamented the many conflicts that plague the continent, telling youth that to overcome these challenges requires strong intergenerational ties and collaboration among themselves.

He also announced that he is planning to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan in early February, after canceling a planned visit to both countries in July due to complications with his ongoing osteoarthritis of the knee.

Pope Francis speaks to African university students via Zoom on Nov. 1, 2022 as part of the “Building Bridges” initiative. (Credit: Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network/Screenshot.)

The event, which took place as part of the pope’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, was opened by Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Vatican’s office for the Synod of Bishops, who stressed the importance of intergenerational dialogue and mutual listening.

Pope Francis then offered opening remarks and took questions from several university students across Africa, who tuned in from countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, the Congo, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe, among others.

In his opening remarks, the pope spoke to the students about the importance of remembering their roots, saying, “You all have a history, your people have a history.”

The past is not always positive, as “there are some who have built their history in blood,” he said, urging the students to “take your history upon yourself” and to “prove your maturity.”

“We can only become mature if we accept the burden of history,” accepting both the good and the bad, he said, saying the concept of ubuntu can bring people together and foster an encounter “that can lead us forward.”

“Africa isn’t meant to be exploited, Africa isn’t meant to be a subculture, it has its own wealth, not just its many natural resources,” he said, adding, “It has its human beings, and you young Africans have to appreciate the wealth that you are.”

Asked how to discern from among the various groups and movements vying for their attention and involvement, Pope Francis cautioned against being seduced by a “supermarket of salvation” and said that when the path seems unclear, “you’ll find the answer in your heart.”

“Go forward, and along your path you’ll realize if you are becoming more mature,” he said, saying the most important quality to look for when contemplating whether to join a religious group is that “it doesn’t take your freedom away. If it does, it’s not healthy.”

In response to a student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who asked when the pope’s trip would be rescheduled and referenced the many women who have suffered violence amid the country’s longstanding conflicts, Francis emphasized the dignity of women.

“Women are often the protagonists of pain in Africa” and are frequently “underestimated,” he said, urging youth to rebel against this, because “Women aren’t meant to be used; they gave life to a people.”

Regarding the rescheduling of his trip to the Congo and South Sudan, the pope said it “is planned for February,” and that he is optimistic about going, as his knee has improved, allowing him to use a cane more frequently than a wheelchair.

Francis was also asked about how to end poverty and the problem of migration and internal displacement within Africa due to the many conflicts unfolding throughout the continent, as well as natural disasters.

In his response, the pope said the looting of Africa’s resources is “slowly making your countries poorer,” which in turn forces many people to go abroad, seeking jobs in Europe or North America, while others, especially youth, fall prey to criminal or militant groups due to a lack of opportunities.

He condemned the global arms trade, saying many modern wars are waged “to use older weapons and test newer ones.”

“If we were to erase arms for a year, we would eliminate hunger globally,” he said, and pointed to conflicts throughout the world, including those in Syria, Myanmar, and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The pope also lamented the many tragic deaths of African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, “which has become the world’s largest graveyard,” and noted that many African countries have “a very savage history due to colonialism, the colonists who exploited you to further their own development.”

“Sometimes we think of Africa as a country to be exploited, and throughout history we see that independence was given to countries, but they continue to depend on their colonizers, so it’s a partial independence, because independence is either achieved or it’s not,” he said.

To this end, Pope Francis encouraged youth to work for full independence, and to draw on the strength of their youth to “continue in your struggle, continue to strive toward putting an end to war, hunger, poverty, and the semi-permanence of refugees.”

In terms of ecology and the protection of Africa’s resources, Francis in response to a question about environmental justice condemned “the tragedy of deforestation” in Africa, saying the same thing is happening in the Amazon Forest in Latin America.

He called deforestation “a crime against humanity because it leads to global warming, and it leads to the deterioration of our atmosphere’s conditions,” saying many countries are unaware “of the environmental debt we’re leaving to future generations.”

“Who is going to pay that debt? Unless we act now it’s too late,” he said, and condemned the multi-national corporations “that exploit nature and lead to greater imbalances.”

The earth, he said, “is being assassinated, it’s being violated. We have to truly think about how savage it is to rape the earth, just as it is to rape a woman.”

“We are raping the earth because we want to dominate it, we want wealth,” he said, and encouraged young people to commit themselves to opposing “those that want to rape the earth” by instead becoming “apostles of the earth.”

Asked by a student about political involvement in places where young people are often excluded, Pope Francis said, “the lack of the participation of young people is the death of a country,” and that youth ought to be involved at all levels of society.

“You can’t wait for tomorrow,” he said. “When we are young, we tend to lack caution, but sometimes we are far too cautious, and if you are too cautious, you will never end up doing anything, so be bold.”

Despite the crippling social and economic conditions that many live in, the pope told the students not to underestimate themselves, and “don’t be afraid to struggle, because if young people don’t struggle, who will? Be cautious, make sure you receive guidance from older people, but continue, and be brave.”

Asked by a student in Nigeria what advice he would give given the country’s problem with armed militant groups that increasingly kidnap and kill clergy and religious, Francis said he is concerned about fundamentalism, terrorism, and banditry in Nigeria.

“Many men and women of the church suffer. Many have been kidnapped or killed by banditry and terrorism,” he said, saying these things lead to “social suicide” and can impact a country’s ultimate survival.

In the face of these challenges, “young people cannot be passive, you need to resist, organize, have religious doctrine,” but a “real tangible religious doctrine,” he said, saying involvement in politics is good and “is the highest form of charity because it strives for the common good.”

“Young people can do something in political terms,” he said, but insisted that they can’t do it alone, and that “you have to be together and organized” and depend on the advice and guidance of elders.

Pope Francis also pointed to the lack of professional abilities and professional integration that many young people face, saying the Catholic Church is doing a lot to promote young people and their future, but it can do more through its schools and universities.

“Without cooperating with the powers that repress, universities have to be free and young people have to be able to have freedom,” he said, noting that repressive governments of the past have often closed schools and universities, “leaving young people without the ability to learn, which is a way to subjugate the youth.”

This, he said, “is why the church is so focused on learning, education…I’m sure we can still do more.”

Asked whether the Vatican could establish a commission or department dealing with youth ministry in Africa, given its demographics and the challenges many youth face in terms of identity in the modern digital era, the pope said identity comes from one’s history and roots.

“If young people don’t care for the roots they received, their families, countries, history, then young people cannot be mature. Be aware of your roots, so that you can lead them into the future,” he said.

Pope Francis also highlighted the importance for youth to participate in the leadership of their countries, cautioning that “young people shouldn’t turn into revolutionary leaders,” but must be aware of their country’s history and “be united in looking to the past, your roots, and also to the future with organization.”

“Jesus taught us to be engaged, to struggle for justice,” he said, saying that “To be Christian in this day and age means to be engaged (and) to stop all those structures that want to keep you from being engaged.”

Pope Francis closed the event thanking the young people who participated and urging them to get involved, but “without ever forgetting that you have to keep your roots in mind. Remember your past.”

“Live in the present with a firm grip on reality, and try not to be alienated. Keep a firm view on the real present, and never stop dreaming, because that’s when countries come to an end,” telling youth: “Keep dreaming, with a view to your roots.”

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