Allston parish discussion group breaks the rules of polite conversation

ALLSTON -- On the evening of Dec. 5, a priest, an economics adviser for a think tank, a defense attorney, an international relations student at Tufts University, an electrical and computer engineering student at Boston University, a rock singer and artist manager, and a dental insurance coordinator walked into the rectory of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Allston.

This isn't the start of a joke. It was the start of the parish's Dorothy Day Faith Forum weekly discussion group. Since Lent 2022, the group, led by Pastor Father Robert Carr, has spent Tuesday nights breaking the two cardinal rules of polite conversation. They have lively debates on politics and religion, within the framework of each week's Gospel, as well as Catholic teaching on a wide variety of subjects.

"It was originally billed as just a discussion group," said Jimmy McCall, the defense attorney. "We had no agenda, and every session we had, quickly turned into a very topical discussion. It was always kind of based on applying church teaching to our lives every day."

Bruce Boccardy, economics and labor adviser for the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, joked that he "bugged" Father Carr into starting the group.

Boccardy likes to introduce his views to the group for feedback. That way, he can see what he is leaving out or what other perspectives he should consider. For instance, "the guy that really knows the streets is Jimmy."

"If everybody said 'Yeah, you're right all the time,'" Boccardy said, "I wouldn't come."

The Dec. 5 discussion tackled inequality, immigration, welfare, capitalism, socialism, Communism, and American democracy, among other issues. To articulate their views, group members infused Scripture with their personal experiences and current events happening worldwide.

"We look to the church for guidance on some of these issues," McCall said. "Not political, but the ideals of freedom, personal freedom, religious freedom."

Father Carr described the Catholic Church as believing in "voluntary socialism."

"That is," he explained, "you help other people."

According to Scripture, the wealthiest people in society are expected to contribute the most to the poor.

"I wouldn't want to be a billionaire for all the money in the world," he said. "Because you literally have to justify why you have so much."

McCall said that while wealth inequality is a big issue in American politics, he would be a "one percenter" compared to the rest of the world. Unlike many people in the world, he has a house, a car, and enough to eat.

"What does the Gospel message say to us about that, if I'm a one-percenter?" He asked. "What is expected of me?"

"This is something the pope brings up a lot," Father Carr said.

Such analysis of Catholic social teaching appeals to Boccardy. He said that he's "comfortable being an advocate for working folks," and that "there's a rich tradition" of the Catholic Church doing that.

It's a topic that Father Carr often discusses on his radio show, where Boccardy is an occasional guest.

The group still doesn't have a name, but Boccardy suggested calling it the Dorothy Day Discussion Group, in hopes of attracting more women members. The only woman at the Dec. 5 meeting was June Caldera, the dental insurance coordinator. Born and raised in California, she "lost everything" when she came to Massachusetts. The Catholic Church was the one constant throughout her life.

"I come here to be part of something bigger than myself," she said.

Chrystyan Oliveira, the Tufts international relations student, pulled up a list of "500+ Catchy Catholic Podcast Name Ideas" in hopes of finding a group name.

"The topics we discuss here help me get a different perspective from different people from parts of the world," he said.

Many of the group members describe themselves as "reverts," who were raised Catholic but drifted from the faith before rediscovering it. Alden Noronha, the BU engineering student, said that the group has helped him be more consciously Catholic in his everyday life.

"It brings another aspect of culture," he said, "because I'm not from the U.S."

He was born and raised in India, moving to the U.S. last year. He described religious conflict in his home country, attacks on Christian churches, and his parents' terror as they watch the rise of India's Hindu nationalist government.

"Coming here," he said, "I realize that there is a wide range of denominations. Back home, it's not anything like this. It's made me more curious to understand about the faith."

Noronha compared the group to the Synod on Synodality, with its emphasis on laity communicating with the clergy, and vice versa.

"It can be an exercise in discernment in a way," said Dylan Levinson, the rock singer and artist manager. "Getting inspired by what you hear from others."

To him, all issues, even ones that seem secular, have a connection to the faith.

Father Carr said that neither of the U.S.'s two political parties fully embrace Catholic teaching. He pointed out that both have indulged in anti-Catholicism throughout their histories.

"The party you don't like might embrace some Catholic teaching more than the party you like," McCall added.

The group agreed that the polarized political climate in the U.S. encourages panic and outrage, which is inflamed by modern media and technology.

"We're in the world," McCall said, "but we're not to be of the world."

Caldera said that when she is on public transportation, everybody is on their phones. They are of the world, but by ignoring their surroundings, they are not in the world.

Boccardy countered that technology "affects everybody, whether we like it or not."

"Where do we get our information from," he said, "that will counter what you're saying?"

Oliveira said that "you have to police yourself" to not be overwhelmed by information online, much of which is "fluff" rather than real news.

McCall said that he has "concerns" about the future of democracy in the U.S., but "it's not going to keep me from getting up in the morning."

"It's not going to keep me," he said, "during this Advent season, in my own meager, sinful way, to prepare for God's coming during Christmas."