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Standing Together in Opposite Aisles: Engaging Political Difference Among Young Adults

October 21, 2016

After 110 years in the North Side of Chicago’s Lincoln Park, St. Clement’s Parish is no stranger to the colorful history of Chicago politics.  As young families and professionals have made Lincoln Park a thriving neighborhood in recent years, the parish has sought to develop ways to help the Church grow as one while navigating the complex issues that often divide America and our cities.

Pastoral Associate and Director of Evangelization, Christina Bax, who also serves as the Young Adult community’s staff liaison, describes the young adult preferences as all over the ecclesiological, liturgical, and political spectrum.  Bax describes the sense among young adults as tending to know what the Church teaches, but aren’t always so clear as to why.

Like most parishes, the most spirited debate and deeply held opinions revolve around issues of family and human sexuality.  Following the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, later formulated into Pope Francis’ exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the parish hosted an event including a talk by the parish’s associate pastor that led into table discussions broken up into cross-generational subgroups using the Catholic Common Ground Initiative guide.  Many parishioners eagerly shared on the hotly debated topics of communion for the divorced and remarried and more.  Bax noted the quality of the group discussions, which accomplished basically what they set out to do—bring people into conversation with each other and the tradition and teaching of the Church.

A similar parish effort took place in the aftermath of the landmark Supreme Court decisions recognizing the constitutionality of gay marriage (cf. Defense of Marriage Act (2013), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)).  Part of St. Clement’s response involved initiating a book club, using a book written by a Chicago priest, who then came to present in person on the topic.  Although the process was well planned and attended, Bax and her team found the event didn’t generate as much helpful conversation as hoped.  Though these two experiences offered Bax and her team a lot to evaluate and reflect on for future events, sometimes the outcomes are simply unpredictable, as entering into heated discussions tend to be.  The unpredictability offers a lesson in itself about the difficult, patient work that authentic dialogue really is.

Especially among young adults, the 2016 election season certainly hasn’t offered much progress as to the quality of civil discourse in the United States.  Around St. Clement’s, you will find young adults on both sides of the aisle, as well as those who have exited the halls of the left or right altogether.

Bax and the St. Clement team have learned much in the way of “setting the tone and expectations” before embarking upon an event or program that are prime to raise contentious or debated issues.  Prayer is nonnegotiable; every fruitful Catholic dialogue flows out of and back to prayer.  Developing other tools has been important as well.  Effective moderators help channel charged conversation down healthy and constructive pathways.

Behind an issue and opinion is a story.  Listening to another person’s story takes time and moral humility, but the effect humanizes both parties.  The mediating power inherent in sharing coffee with another person shouldn’t be underestimated.

By Evan Ponton

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