Focolare addresses overcoming polarization, promoting fruitful dialogue in this election year

By Kiki Hayden | OSV News

With Catholic social teaching falling neither purely red nor purely blue, American Catholics often find themselves in the pews with folks of varying political opinions.

The Focolare movement — the “Work of Mary” founded by Chiara Lubich — is partnering with national and international peacekeeping initiatives to overcome polarization and practice fruitful dialogue during the 2024 election year.

People stand in a line to vote shortly before the polls close in Edinburg, Texas, during the Super Tuesday primary election March 5, 2024. (OSV News photo/Cheney Orr, Reuters)

“Like the society is polarized, and the church is a subset of the society and so the church also has polarization,” Kate O’Brien told OSV News. “The Focolare is a subset of the church, so the Focolare has polarization.” O’Brien noticed that many Catholics “shop” for a parish that aligns with their political views, such as choosing between a parish with a #BlackLivesMatter banner vs. a parish with a Gabriel Project banner.

As a Focolarina — a consecrated religious member of the movement — O’Brien has made a lifelong commitment to live out Focolare’s charism of unity. She also serves as the director of the Focolare Forum for Dialogue and Culture.

The Focolare movement was founded in Italy in 1943 and currently has some 110,000 members, including Christians from various denominations, members of other religions and those with no particular religious belief. Close to 7,000 members live in small communities and take vows of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The movement’s goal is to “promote brotherhood and to achieve a more united world in which people respect and value diversity,” according to its website.

Through Focolare’s membership with the Bridging Movement Alignment Council and the Braver Network, O’Brien is forging connections with organizations that share Focolare’s values of bridge-building, such as the National Institute of Civil Discourse, or NICD, the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, or ICRD, and Braver Angels.

For the Focolare movement, issues related to unity are “so sensitive,” said O’Brien, especially because Lubich, died in 2008. The Focolare movement is having to “rediscover” its charism in today’s society. “What did we understand as unity but was actually uniformity? What truly is unity? When Jesus prayed that ‘All may be one’, what did he mean?” For O’Brien, being “one” does not mean being the same.

So what does being “one” mean?

For Focolare, it’s often about personal encounters, just as Christ had personal encounters with others.

On Feb. 27, 25 Focolare leaders from around the U.S. gathered in Washington to attend a workshop to recognize and respond to political polarization within their communities. The NICD “gave us their very pretty space” to use, said O’Brien.

In turn, the Focolare movement is promoting the NICD’s project CommonSense American, which supports Congress in passing bipartisan legislation using data-driven approaches.

A man casts his ballot at a polling station in Charleston during the South Carolina presidential primary Feb. 24, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)

Other Focolare members also are participating in workshops to improve their dialogue skills. The ICRD is collaborating with Focolare leaders to design a series of online retreats “to help us navigate this season together,” explained O’Brien.

During the second retreat March 16, approximately 140 Focolare members learned about how to engage in dialogue with a posture of curiosity rather than persuasion.

ICRD Program Development Manager Ray Kim pointed out the Greek root of “dialogue,” which comes from “dia” (a preposition equivalent to “through”) and “logos”, which has a special meaning for Christians — the first phrase of the Gospel of John uses the word “logos” to mean “Word.” “We are trying to see each other through the Logos, capital ‘L,’ the eyes of Christ,” explained Kim. “The person who disagrees with me is not my enemy; they are my sibling in Christ.”

ICRD conflict resolution specialist Rebecca Cataldi used an iceberg metaphor, saying that a person’s positions are just the “visible” portion of the iceberg. She encouraged participants to learn more about the “underwater” values of their conversation partners.

Cataldi discussed a common conversation topic among Americans today: gun regulations. Some advocate for fewer guns to be available, while others advocate for there to be more guns in the hands of people they trust. While these two positions are very different, people who hold either position have a shared value: to keep children safe from school shootings.

Kim gave another example to retreatants: “One of the most curious people I think we are all familiar with: Jesus Christ.” Christ asked many more questions in Scripture than he answered.

“We’ve recognized how powerful tapping into one’s faith tradition, one’s spiritual values and practices can be,” Kim told OSV News, “and anchoring (dialoguing skills) into something that is deeper.” Kim appreciates “Focolare’s dedication and already inherent vision of fostering a community that is unified yet diverse.”

Focolare members are already putting these skills to good use.

Rose Schmitz, a volunteer of God within the Focolare movement, recalled a recent conversation with a neighbor about the ICRD retreat series. The neighbor “scrunched up her nose and (said), ‘I never talk to anybody about politics unless I am 100% sure they think the same way as I do.'” When Schmitz suggested talking to others and learning about “the opposite opinion,” the neighbor eventually softened. “It as a start for me in leaning in to a strong reply,” Shmitz told OSV News via text, “and her in considering the broader picture might have merit.”

Focolare members also are planning an event series with Braver Angels, an organization that hosts workshops to encourage dialogue across demographics — especially the “red/blue” political divide. These events are open to anyone, Catholic or not.

A sign directing people to vote in the New York Presidential Primary election is seen on the pavement in New York City April 2, 2024. (OSV News photo/Adam Gray, Reuters)

The first workshop, “Depolarizing Within,” took place April 6 in Washington. Focolare members gave a reflection, and then Braver Angels ran a workshop helping participants to become aware of their own “inner polarizer” and learn “how to be critical without demonizing, dismissing or stereotyping large swaths of the population,” according to the Braver Angels website.

Further workshops will take place in June, August and November covering topics such as “Skills for Disagreeing Better” and “Families and Politics.”

Luke Nathan Phillips, Publius fellow for public discourse at Braver Angels, pointed out that although many people “wax poetic” about what it means to be American, the actual experience of being American happens with family and chosen family. American society is “fundamentally familial,” he told OSV News. Using a family-therapy informed approach, Braver Angels prioritizes personal relationships above all else.

“You are going to have family members on the opposite (political side),” said Phillips. Braver Angels provides “a way of overcoming that pain and building something bigger out of it.”

A Catholic himself, Phillips has noticed that “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” Catholic institutions are more likely to partner with groups of other religions whose political values align with their own than to interact with each other. Working with a Catholic group to overcome political polarization was a personal first for Phillips.

Despite the challenges of living in the polarized atmosphere of 2024, the church has a strong foundation for unity: the Gospels and the Eucharist. Unity is “something we all have in the various spiritualities in the church, and obviously the Gospels speak to that too,” said O’Brien. “Holy Communion is the sacrament of unity,” she added.

Building on this strong foundation, Focolare members continue to work toward unity within their members, the church and beyond.

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Kiki Hayden writes for OSV News from Texas.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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