Don’t close yourself off from crisis, pope tells Portuguese students

Pope Francis speaks to university students at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

by Justin McLellan

LISBON, Portugal (CNS) — Meeting in a makeshift “Sistine Chapel” painted floor-to ceiling by students, Pope Francis, paintbrush in hand, left a mark on the hearts of young people by telling them not to shy away from the personal crises that come with a life of faith.

“A life without crises is like distilled water, it doesn’t taste of anything,” he told students gathered at the center of the Scholas Occurrentes educational initiative in Cascais, a town some 20 miles outside of Lisbon.

The pope responded to questions posed by young people from different countries and faith backgrounds in an intimate setting with some 50 people, including Paolo, a 24-year-old Brazilian evangelical who asked the pope for advice on navigating life’s hardships.

“I don’t want to be a catechist,” the pope joked in response before explaining the Bible’s creation story, which he said showed how God created the cosmos from chaos. “That’s the journey of each person,” he said, “a life that stays in the chaotic fails, and the life that never felt chaos is distilled — everything is perfect — and distilled lives don’t give life.”

Scholas Occurrentes, an education initiative long supported by the pope, connects disadvantaged and well-funded schools to exchange ideas and resources and is currently present in 190 countries involving more than 1 million young people worldwide.

Presenting the Scholas center with an icon of the parable of the good Samaritan, Pope Francis explained how people refused to touch the beaten man left in the road for fear of being made impure.

“How many times is ritual purity preferred over human closeness?” he asked them. “Sometimes in life we have to get our hands dirty, so we don’t get our hearts dirty.”

After speaking with the students, the pope was given a curious paintbrush to make his contribution to the painted wall behind his chair. A high-tech handle connected virtually to a Scholas community in Mozambique allowed students in Africa to follow the pope’s paint stroke in real time.

Earlier in the day, the pope visited the Catholic University of Portugal, where he heard testimonies of young people centered on different teachings of his pontificate. Some 6,500 university students, administrators and pilgrims chanted “Esta é a juventude do papa” — “this is the youth of the pope” — as the pope approached the stage in the university courtyard.

American flags were hoisted by Texans and Chicago-land natives along the front row of pilgrims waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at the university.

Holding one of them was Carine Milne, a 19-year-old college student at Purdue University Northwest. She told Catholic News Service that she appreciates the attention Pope Francis gives to young people and to making the church more open.

Other people her age, she said, “think the Catholic Church isn’t welcoming — that if you dress or act in a certain way then you’re not allowed to participate, but God doesn’t work that way.”

Speaking to the 700 Portuguese college students present in the crowd, Pope Francis reiterated that message of openness by telling young people that “Christianity cannot be thought of as a fortress surrounded by walls, which raises its bastions against the world.”

Likewise, he said, universities must go beyond their bubble and cannot just “perpetuate the elitist and unequal system of the world, where higher education is a privilege for the few.”

A college degree, the pope said, cannot be earned solely for “personal well-being,” but is a “mandate to dedicate oneself to a more just and inclusive society.”

Recalling the testimony of Tomás, a 29-year-old theology student who discussed how the pope’s encyclical on integral ecology had impacted him, Pope Francis told the students, “You are the generation that can beat this challenge” of climate change, but he noted that it is possible only with “a conversion of heart and a change in the anthropological vision that is at the base of the economy and politics.”

“To be a Catholic university, above all, means this: that each element is related with whole, and that the whole is found in parts,” he said before praying an Our Father in Portuguese with the crowd.

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