When most people think of a college campus at 7:15 a.m., they envision 20-somethings half awake while brushing their teeth or still in bed, trying to remember why they stayed up so late studying the night before. Most people probably would not imagine a campus buzzing and bustling with over 500 high school seniors, wide awake and excited with anticipation.
However, Thursday, September 24 was not just any morning on Creighton University’s campus. It was a day that had been planned for months. Pope Francis, our Catholic leader, an inspiration for all environmental and social justice lovers, and the first Jesuit pope, was going to speak in front of the United States Congress. Following his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” the world knew Pope Francis would take this address seriously. It seemed that his belief in social justice, care for creation and care for the common good would become the themes of his trip to the United States. We at Creighton, inspired by Jesuit values, knew this as well, and channeled our excitement into planning an event devoted to listening to and reflecting on what Pope Francis would say.
At Creighton we love the word community. We see ourselves as continuously striving to extend our calls to community, so that all may feel welcomed. Since we are part of so many various communities, what better way to extend that welcome than to include to our surrounding community? So we invited 500 high school seniors from around the Omaha area to come to Creighton to watch the pope’s address. Then, after the address, the Creighton University students led facilitated discussions with the high school students.
We called on our Jesuit community, our Omaha community and our Catholic community to come together to listen to Pope Francis and the call he was issuing to all of us. Our goal was to learn from our leader and then take what we heard and go out into the world to live his message. This was our event. This was CU Pope Watch.
By 9:00 a.m. on the day of Pope Francis’ address, Congress was packed with senators, representatives and many of the highest officials in our nation. Then the words, “Mister Speaker, The Pope of the Holy See,” boomed on the speakers next to us as we looked up to our viewing screen and watched Pope Francis enter. His smiling face overwhelmed me. Immediately, our room full of students, along with our representatives on the floor of Congress, erupted in applause. This was the moment that had been spoken about for months.
Pope Francis introduced his speech by explaining that his desire was not to lecture at, but to enter into dialogue with the people of the United States. As a college student I felt called when he spoke the words, “I want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations.” It seemed to us that Pope Francis was speaking to the entire Creighton community gathered that day. He told us that what we were doing was important. We felt we were not only listening to the pope, but also entering into to a dialogue together with him.
“Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities,” Pope Francis said. As soon as I heard these words I began to think. What could I do to stop this injustice? What was I being called to do? What was Pope Francis asking our nation to focus on? “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” Francis said. “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” These words were familiar to me: the common good. This was Pope Francis’ plea to our world in “Laudato Si’,” to be responsible for caring for the common good and our common home. Now he was personally addressing the citizens of the United States on this same issue. My heart swelled. I was exhilarated. My passion for social justice was growing. This is what our country needed: someone powerful, to speak to those holding the power to make change, to address the concerns that have been plaguing our nation, our world, to keep us from that point of no return. I scanned the room around me; all of my peers were in awe.
Pope Francis is calling us to take action: “We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us.” The pope is asking us to be neighbors. His message, his plea, is for us to live in solidarity with those who need it most. It is our duty, then, to be the generation that does not turn our backs on our neighbors simply because it is the easier option. We must act as advocates.
It is our responsibility, as the new generation of young Americans, to defend liberty by fostering a culture of peace and acceptance and to work tirelessly towards achieving justice. This was the message Pope Francis gave to Congress, but also to our entire country. It it up to us to answer the call, the one Pope Francis has just given us, and to be leaders of change.
Gwendolyn M. McElhattan is a junior at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., She is a student team coordinator for the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice Communications and a member of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice Core Team. The Creighton University watch party was sponsored by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which sponsored more than 350 “Pope Francis Watch Parties” around the country.