Pope Francis chats with social media stars

VATICAN CITY (RNS) George Clooney, Salma Hayek and Richard Gere met the pontiff, as well as a dozen YouTube stars in an A-list weekend at the Vatican -- with a serious message.

Pope Francis poses for a selfie picture during a meeting of the Scholas Occurrentes at the Vatican, on May 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of Osservatore Romano/ Handout via REUTERS 
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-SOCIAL, originally transmitted on May 30, 2016.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis is already a celebrity and an Internet sensation in his own right, so it was perhaps no surprise that he had words of wisdom for some of YouTube’s top stars in a meeting over the weekend — and that a few Hollywood A-listers were also lining up for a photo op.

But as with every papal event, both encounters had a serious purpose, and Francis used the moments to highlight the plight of immigrants and the battle for peace, and he even answered questions about whether he would retire.

“I never thought of quitting being pope, or of leaving because of the many responsibilities,” Francis told a dozen Internet videomakers from around the world gathered for a roundtable discussion on social media on Sunday (May 29).

That was in response to a question about whether he would ever retire like his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose momentous decision to step down in February 2013 — the first pope in six centuries to do so — not only opened the door to Francis’ election but continues to generate debate.

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Although Francis adopted a lighthearted tone in the meeting with the YouTubers — chatting and joking with his guests and thanking them for making him feel young — he also said their high profile came with certain responsibilities.

The pope called on the social media celebs to encourage their viewers to concretely help others by offering a hug, a hand or simply remaining silent.

“We are used to using only our tongues, but what about gestures, what you can convey through actions or gestures?” he said.

“You have a great responsibility in this. You help through your virtual system to recover the language of gestures,” Francis said.

He also told his guests to nourish a sense of belonging through their video blogs, which could help people who are feeling lost find an identity in the online sphere.

“You can create a virtual identity, you belong to this circle at least virtually. From that you can start taking a path of optimism and hope,” he said.

The YouTube personalities included American Matthew Patrick, whose video games and critical theory channel has attracted more than 6 million followers, and Hayla Ghazal, whose comedy videos in Dubai challenge social norms in many Middle Eastern cultures.

Ghazal said she aimed to empower girls with her Arabic-language clips. “Where I come from, in the Middle East, you don’t need to shout from the rooftop to send a message. You just need to speak in a language people can understand,” she said.

Ghazal, who has over 1 million subscribers, also saw Francis as having a role in the region: “It’s amazing to see the impact (of the pope). You really see people responding very positively and I also hope to use my channel for positive impact as well.”

Mexican-American Dulce Candy, whose beauty tutorials reach 2 million subscribers, was also one of those invited.

Candy previously served in the U.S. Army, after arriving in the country at the age of 6 as an undocumented migrant. Francis discussed immigration with the group, recalling his time last February at the Mexican border and noting that harsh policies on immigration only create resentment.

“The problem of migration is a serious problem, not only in the U.S. but around the world,” the pontiff said.

Francis spoke broadly about the need for policies to integrate refugees while enabling them to hold on to their own cultures.

“What betrays us unconsciously is the conception that unity is uniformity; it is not so. It is relations between differences,” said Francis, declaring that the faithful should see themselves as brothers with the same father.

“What divides a religion from another is stressed or underlined (when) we are putting up a wall. That is when one attacks the other.

“When you bring them together through dialogue, through listening and looking at the positive things that each religious culture has to propose, that is how we find a good relationship,” he said.

Divisions come not from different religious identities, but fundamentalists, the pope added:

“In all religions there is also a group of fundamentalists that believe they are the holders of the truth.”

Francis concluded the upbeat meeting by joining in a selfie with the online celebrities.

Then he headed — albeit 90 minutes late — to another Vatican conference, this one on promoting education.

It was attended by several Hollywood A-listers, none of whom seemed to mind the delay.

Actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal, a human rights lawyer, were joined in the audience by film stars Richard Gere, Salma Hayek and members of the Scholas Occurrentes community, an initiative started by Francis when he was a cardinal in his native Argentina.

The program encourages a “culture of encounter” to promote peace, and George Clooney, Hayek and Gere were given a “Medal of the Olive” award for their work fighting global warming, war and terrorism, reported the Catholic news site Crux.

“When peoples, families, friends separate, only animosity and even hatred can come out of that division. But when they come together in a ‘social friendship,’ we find a defense against every kind of throwaway culture,” Francis told the gathering.

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