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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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Youth want faith formation, Aussie delegate to tell Pope Francis

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Elizabeth Fernandez, front centre, with her Cherrybrook family. Left to right, back row, Thomas, 22, Magdalena, 23, Clara, 25, Lucia, 14, Daniel (kneeling) 11, Chris, 15, James, 19. Front, Gabriela, 17, Elizabeth, 20, Donna and Alex. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

Pope Francis has described the church as a “family of families” and through Elizabeth Fernandez he is about to make contact with one of Sydney’s beautiful faith-filled families. 

The Macquarie University student has the “really awesome” opportunity to meet the pontiff this month, after she was chosen to represent her Australian peers in an online forum where he will respond to issues important to young people. 

Cheering her on are parents Alex and Donna, and her eight siblings, who are looking forward to the welcome distraction after mum Donna’s recent cancer diagnosis. 

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The meeting on 20 June is part of an initiative of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and Loyola University Chicago, called Building Bridges, and is the fourth such forum since 2022. 

Building Bridges partnered with six universities in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Australian Catholic University, to support students on a month-long “synodal encounter” leading up to the zoom meeting on 20 June. 

Elizabeth, 20, is in her third year of business and law and will represent young adults from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea alongside Seamus Lohrey, a law and public relations student from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. 

Building bridges - The Catholic weekly
Elizabeth Fernandez. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

She will share the two main themes which emerged from her working group—a common experience of loneliness, and young Catholics’ desire for better formation opportunities. 

“As Catholics we can feel really outnumbered, especially on the secular campuses, and secular students equally can feel alienated from the church,” Elizabeth said. 

“Secondly, students said they wanted more support in formation so they could have better conversations [about their belief] at university. 

“Some from Catholic schools for example said they didn’t know why abortion would be wrong until after they had left school and came to the uni chaplaincies, or that they were the only one in their class standing up for the view that abortion is wrong.” 

ACU’s Associate Director of Mission and Ministry, Mark Doyle, said the dialogue between the university students had been “robust, thoughtful, and insightful.” 

“The students spoke extremely passionately about various complex issues, and it was clear that they are committed to making the world a better place,” he said. 

Elizabeth was advised she was shortlisted for the meeting in the same week her mother was undergoing tests, and she was confirmed as the Aussie representative shortly after the shock diagnosis. 

“Those first days were really difficult for us, but we still feel very hopeful for mum and this meeting has been something for us all to look forward to,” she said. 

Building bridges - The Catholic Weekly
Elizabeth and her mother Donna. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2024

The family is drawing on its strong faith to face its challenge. Praying a nightly rosary and attending Mass together are longstanding traditions, but Donna jokes that their prayer for the intercession of saints keeps growing longer, with more being added to the list. 

They see signs of God’s love everywhere, including the opportunity of the anointing of the sick by a priest friend and a blessing from Bishop Anthony Randazzo, and a chance meeting for Elizabeth and her sister Clara with a religious sister who was visiting the hospital where Donna received her diagnosis. 

“When you hear the word ‘cancer’ everyone gets a bit scared,” Donna said. 

“But many blessings have come to our family through this diagnosis and I have always trusted in the Lord’s message, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will be added to you’. 

“I can look back and see how God has prepared me for this journey, how in raising a big family there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself and you learn that you are capable of more than you imagined.” 

Alex said after the initial shock, their faith has given the family “comfort and calm” as Donna begins her treatment.  

“There’s no need to be distressed when we know God will bring us through it,” he said. 

Elizabeth has sought advice from Donna, who is a speech and drama teacher, on her presentation, and is also hoping for an opportunity to ask the pope for a blessing for her mum. 

“It might not be possible, but it would mean a lot especially to mum who has always wanted to meet Pope Francis,” she said. 

For more information or to view the livestream on June 20, visit the Building Bridges Initiative website www.luc.edu/buildingbridges/acrossasiapacific 

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