In the Catholic world where I grew up, south of Roosevelt and north of Cermak, in the blocks surrounding Berwyn’s St. Mary of Celle Catholic Church, “secular space” was something I did not really encounter, at least not consciously. Back then, in the 1950s and ’60s, I’d move from church to school to neighborhood to home and back, experiencing seamlessly the Catholicity of our small world. 

Most of my friends and I — close to 1,000 kids were enrolled in St. Mary’s grade school at the time — believed in the same God, followed the same Jesus, prayed the Rosary to the same Holy Mother, and even, despite some grousing, respected the authority of the same Pope. Some of us wore medals of the saints, crosses or small, sacred scapulars around our necks.

As far as I was concerned, the Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and saints portrayed on stained glass and in paintings in the sanctuary were also watching over us in the neighborhood. And at home, what with the prayers led by Dad and Mom, and the statues, crucifixes, and holy water fonts placed throughout the house, the Catholic milieu permeated every room.

That world, with its consistent narrative about why we were here, its sense of community, and yes, its contradictions, is no more. Rather, I find myself moving very consciously between expanding secular space and shriveling religious space here in Oak Park. With the school closed and attendance at Mass down at St. Mary’s, I’m sure I’d feel something similar in Berwyn as well.

What I experience here, and more widely in our polity, is a place in which some are grasping for a unifying narrative, while others mistrust that very notion as a smokescreen for hiding systemic injustice. Rather, secular space is awash in competing critical narratives from the left and right, some more refined than others, among a racially, culturally and politically divided citizenry. 

There is much referencing “the community,” but such allusions in reality denote groups with divergent claims, conflicting interpretations of history, and differing views of who ought to be moving in as we diversify.

As one who grew up in the old Berwyn and has lived for many years in Oak Park, I carry this yearning for community and my own, unresolved critical narratives within. That old, unified, Catholic culture of my youth generally looked the other way when it came to confronting racial segregation. Unchecked by the Church, Berwyn became known for defending it. And the Church’s patriarchal structure treated girls and women like second-class citizens. 

Religion can be a divisive force, but pushing religiosity out of the public square hasn’t led to a more unified, secular village. If anything, it’s been followed by more fragmentation and a more frenzied, vitriolic kind of public discourse. The new political meanness has led many to simply opt out of public discussion, or to share their views only in private with those they most trust. 

We need what our institutions of faith bring uniquely to the public table. We need them back in the public square to remind us that we are all God’s children. Our egoism and a tendency toward self-worship that secularism encourages, need to be tempered by our souls’ yearning to do what God would have us do. Prayers, sacred rituals and the honoring of symbols from our different traditions can aid in this rebalancing. 

Drawing on my faith tradition, I’ll use as an example, the “Kingdom of Heaven,” of which Jesus spoke. This loving domain of divine energy is here: it is “at hand.” Genuine prayer invokes it. Reflecting on the Scriptures can lift it up. Treating one another with dignity, as children of the Holy One, can activate it in our midst.

In rejecting, rightfully, the failings of our religious institutions, we’ve also tossed out what they bring to community building. I don’t yearn for that old Catholic world of my youth, but I do know that we need a better way to experience our oneness, even as we argue passionately about how to make this a better community. 

Our best traditions of faith can encourage the humility needed to make our vigorous democratic discourse a process of listening, learning and arguing that bonds us, rather than drives us apart.

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