How Grotto Network Promotes Cultural Diversity and Acceptance Within Catholic Social Teaching

Author: Alanna O'Shea


As one of the world’s leading Catholic universities, the University of Notre Dame serves as the ultimate destination for a student to not only pursue their academic endeavors but to also enrich their faith, no matter which religion they may practice. A major virtue in the Catholic Church is good works and humility, which call us to treat others as fellow human beings who are deserving and worthy of God’s love. Faculty, staff, and students of Our Lady’s University come from every corner of the globe, united under one Golden Dome. The team at Grotto Network is certainly no stranger to these messages of hope and compassion.

Grotto Network launched in September 2017, its name being inspired by the world-famous Grotto on our campus. It is led by Javi Zubizarreta, an alumna of the University of Notre Dame’s Film, Television, and Theater department who has gone on to win nine Emmy Awards and the Princess Foundation Award during his career. Grotto Network fulfills its mission by “aiming to show you something more,” combining faith with stories that cover all different aspects of modern life. From dating to social justice, there is no shortage of relatable stories that the staff and contributors haven’t covered. Grotto Network has also started a new endeavor for recent college graduates in Chicago, called Grotto Chicago.

While all the stories you can find on Grotto Network’s website and social media pages are inspiring, there is one in particular that stood out to us at the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures: the El Paso pilgrimage. According to Catholic Social Teaching, "migration is not a divisive phenomenon but an occasion to build the human family.” The Church strongly opposes the treatment many immigrants wishing to find a better life in the United States and in other countries are faced with. It is an uncomfortable and unfortunately true reality to swallow, but a problem cannot be solved if it is not identified and fully comprehended.

This reality is precisely why, during fall break in 2019, Grotto Network participated in and covered pilgrimages from Chicago, Illinois, to El Paso, Texas, with The Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership (CSPL), a Chicagoland non-profit organization. This journey brought together members of the Notre Dame community to travel to the border that divides El Paso from Juárez, Mexico, to accompany asylum seekers. Grotto Network saw the El Paso Pilgrimage as an opportunity to delve into issues of immigration, border dynamics, and human stories beyond the news headlines we see on the news and on social media. “We come from a big tradition where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees and migrants,” said Michael Okinczyc-Cruz, the Executive Director and co-founder of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, who participated in the pilgrimage. “So the right to migrate, the right to flee, and the right to seek safety and opportunity are fundamental rights within the Catholic Social Teaching Tradition.”

Participants traveled by bus, driving 1,500 miles south, to protest the unfair treatment of Mexican immigrants coming into the United States, who are often treated as less than human, and even separating children from their parents. Students prayed the Rosary during the bus ride, aware of how tense the impending situation would be. Upon arriving in El Paso, students participated in a peaceful march and protest with Catholic and Latinx organizations who also traveled from all across the United States. Participants directly witnnessed narratives of resilience, hope, and personal struggle, amplifying voices that often are not heard. The power of storytelling to humanize complex issues and inspire action was evident, igniting a sense of purpose among the pilgrims striving to be the change they wish to see in the world.

“When we finally crossed, I saw a lot of peopleI saw a lot of people,” said Genesis Vasquez from Saint Mary’s College (‘20). "I was overwhelmed. And then I just started crying. I couldn’t breathe. I was having a really hard time being in the moment.” Standing at this physical divide, participants reflected on the complexities of immigration policies, human rights, and the need for compassion in addressing global migration issues. Providing the people on the other side of the border, just a single line away from home, gave pilgrims the opportunity to not only provide them with a basic human necessity, but also to briefly speak with them and get to know their personal stories. Students and other participants even found some of their stories to be relatable, whether it be from their family history or by their own personal experiences making the journey to a new country. Some of these stories were so powerful that students like Genesis found themselves exchanging hugs with strangers, “It’s not a lot,” she continued, “but it’s enough, and it's something to start off with, so that was very inspiring to me.”

Fifteen people were able to successfully cross into the United States with the help of the pilgrims’ bravery. As the journey concluded, participants returned to South Bend with renewed perspectives of immigration issues. The experience didn't end at the United States-Mexico border; it sparked ongoing conversations, advocacy efforts, and community initiatives that will never be forgotten. Grotto Network's El Paso Pilgrimage in October 2019 stands as a testament to the transformative power of faith, dialogue, and commitment to social justice. It showed that in a world often divided not only by physical borders but also by cognitive dissonance that bridges understanding and compassion, Fortunately, these are barriers that can be broken with compassion and understanding of our fellow human beings, even if we do not always share the same lived experiences. This is a sentiment the staff at both Grotto Network and The Center of the Study of Languages and Cultures can attest to.

Grotto Network is clear about a single truth, and that’s that all of us have a story. If you would like to have yours featured, you can reach out to Javi and his team on their website.

About the CSLC

The Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC) aims to support language learners at ND by facilitating meaningful experiences with linguistic acquisition and exchange - both in our campus community and abroad. We believe that access to the world's languages and cultures allows us to seek out new perspectives, to value the diversity of the world's cultures, and to embody global citizenship.