Students part of videoconference with Pope Francis

Shyh Saenz and Anasofia Gutierrez, two Gonzaga University students who were in a video conference with Pope Francis.
Anasofia Gutierrez, left, and Shyh Saenz represent GU in a project that culminates with the papal videoconference

February 14, 2022
Gonzaga University News Service

"Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever-new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles, and spreads joy"
-Pope Francis, Oct. 9, 2021

This event begins at 10 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, Feb. 24, and will be livestreamed. Register in advance at

SPOKANE, Wash. – Two Gonzaga University students will help launch “The Building Bridges Initiative” in a videoconference with Pope Francis that will involve 100 students from Catholic and secular universities across the Americas.

The focus for the Feb. 24 event will be developing concrete projects and lasting networks to help solve the tangle of issues connected with migration. Many of the students are migrants themselves or from migrant families.

Representing Gonzaga will be Shyh Saenz and Anasofia Gutierrez, who are in the midst of preparatory video calls, first with students from other Jesuit schools in the western U.S. and later with the entire group representing North, Central and South America. They also held a listening session open to GU undergraduates to hear their thoughts on the topic.

“I plan to chime in as much as possible and share my ideas and hopefully work for a leadership role within my group,” said Saenz, a junior from Hayward, California, who is majoring in communication studies and is a goalkeeper for the women’s soccer team.

Gutierrez, a senior psychology major with a goal of entering the medical field, is from Renton, Washington. She jumped at the opportunity to “meet” the pope. As she learned more about the topic for discussion – migration – it “really resonated,” she said, since both of her parents are immigrants from Mexico. For Saenz, it was her grandparents who came to the U.S. from Mexico.

How it came about

Kevin Brown of GU’s Mission and Ministry office and religious studies department received the invitation to select two students from a colleague at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who is working with the event’s organizers at Loyola University of Chicago. They, in turn, are collaborating with Emilce Cuda, an Argentinian theologian who is the new head of the office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

Brown thought of Gutierrez and Saenz.

“When Dr. Nancy Pineda-Madrid asked me to nominate two students who have studied or been active in justice initiatives, Shyh and Sofia came to my mind right away,” said Brown, an adjunct professor of religious studies. “I know that both of them have been active in efforts on campus to work toward racial justice. 

“Just as importantly, I know that both of them can integrate those experiences and their personal stories into what they’ve learned in the classroom at Gonzaga. It’s that sort of integrative work that will empower them to bring important insights and questions to the conversations with their fellow students and Pope Francis.”

Their families react

Saenz, who has one younger sister, says her family and friends “couldn’t believe it” when they heard the news about the videoconference, and she singled out her grandparents, who are “very proud of me and are sharing the news with the rest of our extended family.”

Saenz sings her grandparents’ praises.

“I am a product of migration,” she said. “Without my grandparents migrating from Mexico to the U.S, I would not have the life I have today. Migrants come to this country for a better life and my grandparents were lucky to come when they did because today’s media portrays migrants poorly and this must change. 

“The city I grew up in, Hayward, is a sanctuary city and many of the people I am closest to are undocumented. I was also raised Catholic and try to use my faith to spread messages in uniting for the common good to help others and social justice efforts.”

When Gutierrez told her family and housemates about the invitation, she received a lot of high-pitched “What?” reactions, full of joy. She’s the oldest of four children, and one of her grandmothers lives with the family. Her parents immigrated separately, and later met and married.

“Where my family is from, the people I was raised around, it’s been an interesting experience growing up in America, attending mostly White institutions,” she said. Migration is a “huge topic,” and for her and the other students involved, “hard to wrap our heads around.”

Already active on campus

Both students see their involvement as an extension of the energy they have brought to campus.

“My leadership is very solution-driven,” Saenz said. “I serve as the student tri-chair on Gonzaga’s Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion where we are working on an Inclusive Excellence Strategic Plan to create an environment where all human differences thrive. I am on the Division 1 women’s soccer team here and have taken leadership roles in our Student Athlete Advisory Committee and within the West Coast Conference for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”

As advocacy coordinator for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Gonzaga Student Body Association, Gutierrez connects with communities on campus who might feel underserved or underrepresented. She is a liaison for them with the administration, working to make sure their voices are heard. She also offers workshops and initiates conversations promoting diversity.

Still, Gutierrez finds time to serve as a Student Ambassador, offering campus tours to prospective students and their families. Ambassadors seem to be ubiquitous, and they’re easily recognizable as the students walking backward on the job so they can both connect and be heard more easily. The role is close to Gutierrez’s heart because she remembers – as an on-the-verge first-generation college student and person of color – being nervous and full of questions when she first visited GU. She dearly wants to help others in that position feel welcome and answer the questions she knows they have but might hesitate to ask.

Goals for the event

The vision for “Building Bridges” relies on the kind of sustained action Gutierrez and Saenz are taking at Gonzaga. Organizers want the university students to tackle these dimensions of migration: reasons for migrating, such as environmental degradation, unemployment, violence and poverty; the realities faced by people trying to migrate; and the difficulties of people who are immigrants in a new country.

Pope Francis wants to hear “ideas you are studying, proposed practical solutions, the wisdom and insight for real life you have gained from your personal experiences and the experiences of your families and communities,” videoconference materials say, and how the Catholic Church can “support your work, serve migrants, and catalyze progress toward environmental sustainability, economic justice and integral human development.”

“I understand that faith and justice must work together for social change to happen,” Saenz said, “and I know ‘The Building Bridges Initiatives’ with Pope Francis will lead the way on this effort.” 

Brown is both proud of the pair and confident in what they will contribute.

“This conversation is part of Pope Francis’ efforts to build a more synodal church – a church that listens to and learns from one another as it journeys through history,” he said. “So, of course, I’m very excited that Shyh and Sofia will be able to meet Pope Francis over this video call. 

“But I’m also glad that Pope Francis has chosen to embody what synodality looks like in his willingness to listen to and learn from the experiences and wisdom of Sofia, Shyh and the other students participating in this initiative.”