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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 26, 2022
Pope Francis greets Emilce Cuda, an Argentine theologian and head of office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, at the Vatican March 17, 2017. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis will engage in a dialogue with university students from North, Central and South America on Feb. 24. The historic event will be hosted by Loyola University Chicago in collaboration with the Argentinian theologian, Emilce Cuda, the new head of the office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, who convinced the pope to participate.

In an exclusive interview with America, Ms. Cuda, whom Francis appointed on July 26 to be the first woman ever to head this Vatican office, explained that Loyola University invited her to lead a dialogue on the synodal process that is now underway in the Catholic Church worldwide.

She took up her post in the Pontifical Commission for Latin America last September, where she works alongside Rodrigo Guerra López, a Mexican lay professor and the secretary of that office. The commission was set up in 1958 “to advise and help the particular churches of Latin America” and “to study the questions that refer to the life and progress of these churches,” although in reality it acted as a way for the Vatican to control the Latin American Episcopal Council (known by its Spanish abbreviation, CELAM), which was founded in 1955. But under Pope Francis, the commission’s role has changed, and its current president is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

The historic event will be hosted by Loyola University Chicago in collaboration with Emilce Cuda, the new head of the office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, who convinced the pope to participate.

When Ms. Cuda came to the Vatican, she proposed to Cardinal Ouellet and Professor Guerra López that the work of the commission should focus on forming connections between North and South America, specifically in the areas of migration, energy and food. This encounter among university students is one step in the process of “building bridges” between the continents.

Explaining the genesis of the upcoming event with students and the pope, Ms. Cuda said that in June 2021, before Pope Francis had appointed her to the Vatican post, Loyola University invited her to give a lecture in 2022 on the topic of synodality, in which she would facilitate a conversation on how to interpret what is meant by “the synodal way.”

But she told Loyola University that she was not interested merely in giving another conference on synodality. Instead, she “propose[d] to do a synodal action that involves migrant university students from North and South America.” Ms. Cuda explained she wanted to focus on migration, not from the humanitarian point of view of “assisting migrants” when they arrive in a new country, but instead “looking at the root causes of migration from the scientific and technological perspectives, and asking what we can do to resolve them.”

Migrants are portrayed in the media as cleaners or manual workers or in the gig economy, Ms. Cuda added, while the media rarely shows migrants working in scientific or technical fields.

Ms. Cuda said she wants “to involve our advanced students to seek solutions in each country.” Most migrants from Latin America are economic migrants, not refugees, she noted, and in her view, the root causes of migration are “structural” and, for example, linked to foreign companies taking resources away from countries in the region.

Migrants are portrayed in the media as cleaners or manual workers or in the gig economy, Ms. Cuda added, while the media rarely shows migrants working in scientific or technical fields. To correct this, she wants to give greater visibility to this second, under-presented group of migrants. She proposed to Loyola a synodal action—which, in the spirit of synodality, would involve students’ gathering together to discuss and listen to one another’s thoughts on the root causes of migration—rather than a conference.

Four Loyola professors—Peter Jones, Interim Dean of the Institute of Pastoral Studies; Felipe Legarreta; Michael Murphy, director of The Hank Center; and Miguel H. Díaz, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican—agreed enthusiastically with Ms. Cuda’s vision. One of them “suggested with a smile that it would be good to get the pope to participate,” she said.

“At first, I thought it was a crazy idea,” she added. “But two months later, when I saw Pope Francis on Italian television in a program called ‘The Invisibles’ speaking with persons from the margins of society, and the impact he had then, I concluded it would be wonderful to involve him also in this synodal event.”

Emilce Cuda sent the pope a letter in which she proposed that Francis join in on the event, and she was surprised and overjoyed when on Dec. 20 he replied, “Yes, I will participate, but you must help me.”

Ms. Cuda sent the pope a letter in which she proposed that Francis join in on the event, and she was surprised and overjoyed when on Dec. 20 he replied, “Yes, I will participate, but you must help me.”

She informed Loyola Chicago, which began to organize for the big event that will involve 100 students from Jesuit, Catholic and secular universities, most of them migrants or from migrant families. In order to pick the students, Ms. Cuda and the four Loyola professors worked hard for two months contacting universities in the United States, Canada, Central America, the Caribbean and South America.

The students will come together (virtually) in seven regional working groups to discuss migration in a synodal way. Already this month, Ms. Cuda said has spoken to 50 students in 19 Latin American countries in preparation for the event. Ultimately, the various student groups will come up with questions, which seven or eight students from the different locations in the Americas will present to the pope. Loyola will host the “conference” via video-call, with Ms. Cuda and Pope Francis participating from the Vatican.

Ms. Cuda is close to Pope Francis, authored the book Para leer a Francisco (To Understand Francis) and is known in academic circles as the woman who is best equipped to read the pope’s thoughts. She is a protégée of the late Argentinian Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone, who promoted the “Theology of the People” and was one of Pope Francis’ main teachers.

Born in Buenos Aires, she obtained a doctorate in theology from the Catholic University of Argentina. She studied political science with Ernesto Laclau at Northwestern University Chicago and specialized in studying the roots of populism. She has taught at various universities, including the Catholic University of Argentina and Arturo Jauretche National University in Buenos Aires, and Boston College and DePaul University in the United States. Ms. Cuda is also advisor to the social school of CELAM.

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