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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 03, 2023
Pope Francis listens to a young person during a meeting with university students at the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In a challenging and inspiring address on his second day in Lisbon, Pope Francis told thousands of students at The Catholic University of Portugal that “an academic degree should not be seen merely as a license to pursue personal well-being, but as a mandate to work for a more just and inclusive—that is, truly progressive—society.”

Speaking under a canopy in an open-air space in front of the university’s main building on a rather cold morning in Lisbon on Aug. 3, after being welcomed by the rector, Professor Isabel Capeloa Gil, Pope Francis said, “a university would have little use if it were simply to train the next generation to perpetuate the present global system of elitism and inequality, in which higher education is the privilege of a happy few. Unless knowledge is embraced as a responsibility, it bears little fruit.”

He recalled that in the book of Genesis, the first questions God asks are: “Where are you?” (Gn3:9) and “Where is your brother?” (Gn4:9). Francis told the students:

We do well to ask ourselves: Where am I? Am I trapped in my own bubble, or am I ready to take the risk of leaving my security behind and becoming a faithful Christian, working to shape a world of justice and beauty? Or again: Where is my brother or sister?

As the students listened in silence, he said, “If someone who has benefited from a higher education—which nowadays in Portugal, as in the wider world, remains a privilege—makes no effort to give something in return, they have not fully appreciated the value of the gift they received.”

He recalled that one of Portugal’s great poets, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004), when asked in an interview in 2001, “What would you like to see Portugal achieve in this new century?” answered without hesitation, “I would like to see the attainment of social justice, the reduction of the gap between rich and poor.” Francis told the students they should ask themselves the same question.

Having listened to the testimonies of some of the students that included their own hopes for the future, Pope Francis remarked that their words reminded him of the words of a Portuguese artist, José de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970) who wrote, “I dreamt of a country where everyone was able to become a teacher.” The 86-year-old pope added, “This old man now speaking to you also dreams that yours will become a generation of teachers! Teachers of humanity. Teachers of compassion. Teachers of new opportunities for our planet and its inhabitants. Teachers of hope.”

“This old man now speaking to you also dreams that yours will become a generation of teachers! Teachers of humanity. Teachers of compassion....Teachers of hope.”

The rector, in welcoming the pope to the university—founded in 1967—said that all of them, professors and students alike, felt like “pilgrims.” Commenting on that remark in his speech, Francis said, “the notion of ‘pilgrimage’ nicely describes our human condition for, like pilgrims, we find ourselves facing great questions that have no simple or immediate answers, but challenge us to continue the journey, to rise above ourselves and to press beyond the here and now.” He said, “This is a process familiar to every university student, because that is how knowledge is born. It is also how spiritual journeys begin.”

Continuing, Francis noted, “We are rightly wary of quick and easy answers, facile solutions that neatly resolve every issue without leaving room for deeper questions.” He reminded them that Jesus uses the example of a pearl of great price, “which is sought and found only by the wise and resourceful, by those ready to give their all and risk everything they have in order to obtain it (cf. Mt13:45-46).” Francis said, “To seek and to risk are two words that describe the journey of pilgrims.”

Francis, who is well versed in the country’s literature, recalled that Fernando Pessoa, one of the great Portuguese poets once wrote “To be dissatisfied is to be human,” and said, “We should not be afraid to feel somewhat ill at ease in thinking that what we are doing is not enough. Being ill at ease, in this sense and to the right degree, is a good antidote to the presumption of self-sufficiency and narcissism.” He said, “Our condition as seekers and pilgrims means that we will always be somewhat restless, for, as Jesus tells us, we are in the world, but not of the world (cf. Jn17:15-16). We are called to something higher, and we will never be able to soar unless we first take flight. “

Pope Francis told the students, “We should only be worried when we are tempted to abandon the road ahead for a resting place that gives the illusion of comfort, or when we find ourselves replacing faces with screens, the real with the virtual, or resting content with easy answers that anesthetize us to painful and disturbing questions.”

Pope Francis said, “the university does not exist to preserve itself as an institution, but to respond courageously to the challenges of the present and the future.” He told the students and professors that “self-preservation is always a temptation, a knee-jerk reaction to fears that distort our view of reality,” but “if seeds were to protect themselves, they would completely destroy their generative power and condemn all of us to starvation. If winter were to persist, we could not marvel at the spring. So replace your fears with dreams: do not remain hostage to your fears, but set about working to realize your goals.”

"If seeds were to protect themselves, they would completely destroy their generative power and condemn all of us to starvation."

Some of the students in their testimonies had pointed to “the dramatic and urgent need to care for our common home.” Pope Francis agreed and added, “this cannot be done without a real change of heart and of the anthropological approaches undergirding economic and political life.” He put them on their guard against “halfway measures [that] simply delay the inevitable disaster” and said, “there is a need to confront head-on what sadly continues to be postponed” and to redefine what we mean by progress and development, because “in the name of progress, we have often regressed.” He told these students: “Yours can be the generation that takes up this great challenge.”

At the same he reminded them, “We need an integral ecology, attentive to the sufferings both of the planet and the poor. We need to align the tragedy of desertification with that of refugees, the issue of increased migration with that of a declining birth rate, and to see the material dimension of life within the greater purview of the spiritual.”

Pope Francis called on these university students to “make your faith credible through your choices.” He said, “unless faith gives rise to convincing lifestyles, it will not be a ‘leaven’ in the world. It is not enough for us Christians to be convinced; we must also be convincing. Our actions are called to reflect, joyfully and radically, the beauty of the Gospel.”

"It is not enough for us Christians to be convinced; we must also be convincing. Our actions are called to reflect, joyfully and radically, the beauty of the Gospel.”

He affirmed that “in every age, one of the most important tasks for Christians is to recover the meaning of incarnation. Without the incarnation, Christianity becomes [an] ideology; it is [the] incarnation that enables us to be amazed by the beauty of Christ revealed through every brother and sister, every man and woman.”

When Francis finished speaking, the students stood and applauded and cheered him, chanting in Portuguese, “We are the young people of the pope!”

His meeting with the university students was the penultimate event of the first of the three parts of his five-day visit to Lisbon. That first part was directly involved with the Portuguese authorities, and especially with the Catholic church. His final event in this first part will take place tomorrow morning, Aug. 4, when he visits a city parish that hosts a center of charitable works linked to St. Vincent de Paul.

This afternoon, Aug. 3, Francis begins the second part of his visit, dedicated to the World Youth Day event. This part stretches through Friday and Saturday and concludes on Sunday with an open-air Mass that is expected to be attended by a million people.

The third part of the pope’s visit takes place on Saturday morning, August 5, when he travels by helicopter to the Marian shrine of Fatima, 65 miles north of the capital city, and prays there, especially for an end to the war in Ukraine.

That war has been on his mind throughout this trip, and this morning he received a group of 15 young Ukrainians at the nunciature—the Vatican embassy—in Lisbon where he is staying. He met them for half an hour and received the flag of Ukraine from them. The Vatican later released a picture of Francis holding the flag, reiterating the pope’s closeness to what he calls “this martyred people.”

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