Reflection on NETWORK’s “Just Advocacy Week”

By Billy Critchley-Menor
July 13, 2015

Originally appeared on the Strength from the Cloud blog

 “We’re not about that polarization crap.”

To many millennials, the Catholic Church has become an outdated and irrelevant institution. Many in our parents’ generation have forgotten, watered down, or walked away from the Church. But what perhaps is even more tragic than the number of people leaving the church, is the divide we find inside it. Growing up in today’s Catholic landscape, millennials are exposed to a heartbreaking and toxic polarization between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics and are often, it seems, pressured to choose a side, or get out. I am strengthened however, by the millennials I have met who refuse to choose a side and refuse to get out.

Recently, I flew from my home in Duluth, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C. to attend Just Advocacy Week, a week-long training on Catholic social justice and advocacy for college students. The event was put on by NETWORK, the Catholic Social Justice Lobby.  As a long-time fan, spending a week with the organization was almost a dream come true. Although, knowing that NETWORK and the institutional church have both publicly criticized each other on different occasions, I was skeptical of the crowd I would encounter. I expected to spend the week with people who were quick to correct “Catholic” to “liberal Catholic,” people who cared about social justice but demonized the Church and saw the sacraments as secondary. My expectations however, were shattered by the other young people I met.

I anticipated a week that would perpetuate polarization, but instead found beaming hope in millennials who said, “We’re not about that polarization crap.” I encountered a group of college students eager to salt the earth, to defy the stereotypes of their generation, and to serve their Church with the gospel as their guide and the sacraments as strength.

Our current culture tells us that we can’t have a conversation about abortion with differing opinions and still break bread together. It tells us that income inequality and canon law are conversations to be had with separate people, in separate occasions, and only with those who share your opinions on both of them. If we truly live out our Catholic faith however, we will be a paradox in the eyes of the world.

This radiant Catholic paradox is what gives me hope. Over the week the sixteen of us college students engaged in conversations about the Earned Income Tax Credit and women’s ordination. We shared the stories of our different confirmation saints and discussed the tragedy of such low tax rates on capital gains that allow the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. We spent time with Sr. Simone Campbell and learned from her witness to justice on Capitol Hill. We spent some time at the Poor Clares’ in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We spoke with the same passion as we railed against for-profit prisons and lamented the death of innocent children and wrongly convicted men and women. We eagerly awaited, with the rest of the world, the release of Laudato Si and over breakfast and Metro rides, shared incredible wisdom as we read from and tweeted the papal encyclical with our smartphones.  We shed tears over our racist, sexist, and classist culture, but lifted each other up in joy, laughter, and especially in shared prayer. We refused to let our faith be put under a bushel basket.

Putting our faith into action, we closed the week on Capitol Hill lobbying our senators and representatives to make permanent the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. We were not lobbying as Democrats, or Republicans, we were lobbying as Catholics who understood their moral obligation to engage in the political sphere and work to end oppression of those who live on the margins in America.

On our last evening together, our group listened to a recording of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech and were reminded that so many of King’s lamentations in 1963 have been left unresolved. Though, as we shared our own dreams we were empowered with King, and the prophet Isaiah to “dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” It became clear that our passion for justice was rooted in our immense love for God and God’s Church.

This generation of faith is falling in love with the right things. We are falling in love with the Catholic Church and its challenging and radically beautiful paradoxes in a new way. We are falling in love with Catholicism that preaches unity rather than one that requires labels. We are falling in love, and my prayer, like Father Arrupe’s, is that we stay in love and let it decide everything.

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