Early in the last decade, I made a conscious decision to withdraw from engagement in Canada's political life. Of course, I have never been elected to anything more significant than secretary of the Red Cross Club when I was in Grade 4. Nor have I ever been a partisan of any political party.
But I have spent my adult life covering politics as a journalist and writing opinion columns about political issues. I have always been as much of a political junkie as any backroom operative or front-bench elected representative.
A point arrived, however, when I simply felt exhausted by the whole business and, much more, the whole process. Any social conservationist who has suffered setback upon setback for the past 20 years might feel the same. For me, however, it was not the defeats. It was the visceral disgust.
I announced to a number of friends that I preferred the frustrations of golf to the fraudulence of politics, and when that didn't entirely fill the void, I added marathons to my usual running regime.
It took a calamity to shake me out of my irresponsibility. There was a horrible overpass collapse in Montreal, where I live, and I happened to hear the mayor of the municipality where it occurred tell a radio interviewer that he had long been nervous about all the overpasses in his jurisdiction.
"Whenever there is traffic stopped under an overpass, I always wait at the edge," he said. "I never go in unless the traffic is moving."
I was dumbfounded, wondering why, as a political leader, he did not do something beyond adopting this tactic for his own self-protection. If he felt danger, why did he not ring alarm bells that might have saved lives?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was him. I was lurking at the edge, protecting myself, refusing to enter into the common life of my country.
I began to re-engage, began writing about politics again, began working with the great folks at Cardus and, last October, co-founded this magazine with Father Raymond de Souza, Convivium's editor-in-chief.
Convivium is not an expressly political magazine in the narrow sense of process, strategizing and marketing that has come to define what we think of as politics. But it most definitely does concern itself with the polis—the city—with that shared space where the common life of citizens is lived out.
Our current issue's look back at World Youth Day 2002 is more than just a nostalgic remembrance of what was. It is a call to what the polis, the shared space of the city, can be when faith in our common life is the operating principle.
From July 23 to 28, 2002, the city of Toronto was transformed by hundreds of thousands of young people—Catholics, yes, but also children of many faiths—from around the world. As Mel Lastman, mayor of Toronto at the time, tells us in his inimitable way, many Torontonians initially feared that the youth would be pests. They ended by following the kids into coffee shops to hear them sing, to experience the love they generated. The polis was made vibrant in a way its inhabitants could never have imagined.
So, did a new age of "political" light and harmony suddenly dawn? No. Looked at in various ways, the years since 2002 have been politically disastrous in Canada.
If you are a social conservationist, you have seen meaning itself torn apart, including by the recent assaults on Catholic schools in Ontario and the legalization of euthanasia by judicial fiat in British Columbia.
If you are on the left, you have seen the election of what you will perceive as a niggardly neo-liberal majority determined to take the country backward in its symbols and legislate inequality as a matter of course. If you are a Liberal, you have seen your historic party decimated. If you are a New Democrat, you have seen your party victorious only to suffer the death of its beloved and unifying leader.
What remembering World Youth Day 2002 helps us realize, however, is that the problem might really be in our perception of what it means to win politically. Organizers and participants could have spent those six days adopting tactics of self-protection to make sure they, or their side, were safe. They didn't. They risked. Lives, public and private, were transformed. The polis was the winner.
As a wise friend reminded me not long ago, true victory belongs to God, not history. That is why we need faith in common life, and also why we need to engage in political life to express our faith that common life is possible.