ROME – In a lengthy video call with young people from south Asia this week, Pope Francis criticized the common practice of so-called “fat shaming” or “body shaming,” and stressed the need to acknowledge one’s own dignity and to be in harmony with oneself.

To this end, he said practices such as elective plastic surgery are useless and cautioned against the influence of social media on mental health, as it focuses largely on appearances and “artificial” beauty.

In the conversation, he also touched on the negative influence of new technologies, the lack of education and employment for young people throughout the world, and anti-Christian persecution, condemning all forms of fundamentalism and warning against what he said are “Christian extremists” who turn the Gospel into ideology.

Responding to a question from a young woman named Merlin from India, who said that as a teenager she would cry herself to sleep because she was teased for being overweight, Pope Francis said this mentality “is something that is influencing us.”

“We do everything to appear, and not to be. So does body-shaming,” he said.

Francis recounted how when he was still in school, he and his friends once bullied a schoolmate who was overweight, and that when his father found out, he was taken to his classmate’s home to apologize.

Years later, after he was already ordained a priest, the pope said he reconnected with the classmate, who had become an Evangelical pastor, and by then “had overcome all of his trauma, his bullying, his shame, his body-shame.”

That man recently died, he said, but insisted that “it was beautiful” to reconnect and to see how his schoolmate was able to overcome the teasing he had endured.

“There is the beauty of the harmony of the individual, regardless of you being fat, thin, short, tall. The important thing is to live in harmony, harmony in your hearts,” he said, saying, “Beauty makes us grow in terms of our mental health: every man, every woman, has our own beauty, we only have to learn how to see it, how to recognize it.”

Even when someone is not considered physically attractive, they must be “in full harmony with our beauty as a person, as an individual,” he said.

To this end, Francis insisted that, “Plastic surgery serves no purpose, because this beauty is eventually going to fade.”

He pointed to Italian actress Anna Magnani, saying he heard that at one point, when she began to age, she insisted that she would not “get rid” of her wrinkles, arguing that “it cost me to get them, they are my beauty.”

“We all have our beauty, and we have to accept it and live in harmony with it. We have to live in harmony with the beauty of our hearts,” the pope said, saying young people must learn how to protect themselves from the “artificial beauties” advertised on social media.

“When a woman is pregnant, when she is expecting, her body-shape is not beautiful per se, but expecting a child is one of the most beautiful things ever. So, it’s not only a question of measurements or sizes, it’s a harmonic beauty that every woman, every man has, and we have to cherish that,” he said.

Pope Francis spoke with 12 Indian, Pakistani and Nepali students from local Catholic universities who participated in an Sept. 26 video call titled “Building Bridges in South Asia.”

It was organized by the Jesuit-run Loyola University in Chicago in cooperation with the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, and marked the third event in anticipation of the looming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, set to take place from Oct. 4-29 in Rome. Previous online encounters involved young people in Latin America and Africa.

The call was divided into four different sections in which a group of young people asked the pope questions, and he responded.

The first round of questions focused on challenges related to technology, fake news, and misinformation spread online, while the second section focused largely on the lack of access to education many youth face around the world.

The third section was focused on anti-Christian persecution and discrimination in places where they are a minority, and the fourth section touched on mental health issues among young people, including the isolation caused by social media, bullying, and suicide.

In an introduction, Pope Francis referred to the event’s title, saying to build bridges “means building bridges between people, between us, which is the opposite of building walls. Walls divide people, bridges unite people.”

“We shake hands, we build bridges of friendship between men and women of different cultures, because the Gospel needs to become part of our culture, evangelizing culture and spreading the Gospel,” he said.

Both Sister Nathalie Becquart, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and Emilce Cuda, an Argentinian theologian who serves as secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, participated in the call and offered greetings.

Speaking of the role modern technology plays in fueling political polarization and the spread of misinformation and fake news, Pope Francis said the trend is problematic, because “a piece of news cannot be trimmed, it cannot be pruned, it has to be offered on a tray to everyone so that everyone can process and interpret it.”

Reporting real news “means you have to stick to the facts, news has to stick to the facts,” he said, noting that some media outlets “end up manipulating bad news, or they can manipulate news turning it into bad news” in order to appease a large client base.

“This is the so-called industry of fake news that generates real monsters,” he said.

He also condemned discrimination against women and cautioned against various forms of authoritarianism in response to a question from a young man from India, saying true democracy which “fosters understanding between peoples” is needed.

“It can lead to agreements in the end. The path to agreements is indeed a very human thing. I have a different approach compared to you in this or that aspect, so how can we go about it? One thing we can do is shake hands…We can have different frames of mind, different thoughts, but we can find an agreement to carry on together,” he said.

Francis cautioned against a culture of division, especially when it comes to divisions based on caste or religion, saying, “we have to overcome this, we are all called to a fraternal dialogue.”

“Extremists are not going to be part of this dialogue,” he said, warning that there are “extremists among Christians as well.”

“It hurts, but I must say that there are ideological extremists who transform the Gospel into an ideology, so what is not good or beneficial for dialogue is extremists of any kind,” he said, saying the world needs brave and courageous people who are willing to listen to others, even those who are different.

This creates a culture of fraternity and brotherhood, he said, saying “You have an opinion, I have a different opinion, but we can talk because we are humans. Let us never forget this. Through dialogue, we create humanity in people.”

Education can help build this culture of encounter and fraternity, he said, saying education “must be free” and policy makers must do everything in their power to ensure that “every man and woman have the right to be educated,” and that scholarships are available to those in need.

He also responded to questions from three young women from India, Pakistan and Nepal about anti-Christian discrimination in the wake of the eruption of violence in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, an ethnic dispute with religious undertones.

“What is the root of intolerance? … putting everything down, belittling, is wrong. People tend to focus on ideas rather than heart and social friendship…If you don’t agree with me, then you are to blame, and then perhaps you will become a martyr,” he said.

“This is what happens with intolerance, when we lose sight of the social aspect, the language of fraternity because of ideas, we become ideologists. Unfortunately, we become ideologists of our own cultural suicide,” the pope said.

In this context, the only thing that matters “is bearing witness and testimonies,” he said, and urged the youths to always hold out their hands to others with different views or ideas, and to forgive when they are wronged.

On the topic of mental health and the high number of suicides among young people, Pope Francis said youth suicide is “a tragic reality” that happens when young people “are faced with a closed door, they were looking for something and they couldn’t find it.”

Many young people turn to drugs or suicide in places where they lack opportunities and “lose all hope,” believing that their lives are a failure, he said, but insisted that “God always gives us the resilience to stand up again,” even when it seems impossible.

“The important thing is not to not fall, but not to stay or lay on the ground. That’s wisdom: I fall, but then I stand up again. And if I give a hand to someone, this is regardless of that person’s background,” he said.

Francis closed urging young people to move forward with courage and told them, “Don’t lose your sense of humor, because humor means mental health.”

He gave his blessing and asked the youths to pray for him, saying, “This job is not easy, I need prayers! Pray for me.”

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