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Presidential speechwriters encourage young Catholics in policy work
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Two former presidential speechwriters -- one Democrat, one Republican -- encouraged young Catholics who work in public policy to keep the faith and hold onto optimism about using their positions to improve the world.

In the first Salt and Light Gathering June 19, Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and adviser to President George W. Bush, and Jon Favreau, former speechwriter and adviser to President Barack Obama, talked about how to keep a sense of hope in a city and in a political climate that feeds on cynicism.

Salt and Light is an offshoot of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, started at Georgetown University last year by John Carr, its director and the former secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Social Development and World Peace. Salt and Light is intended to bring together lay Catholic professionals under age 40 who work in government and other public policy organizations.

Gerson, now a senior adviser at ONE, a bipartisan organization fighting extreme poverty and disease worldwide, said one strategy to remain grounded in optimism is to "surround yourself with friends, including some who don't share all your views and who will challenge you."

He also said that during his White House days, when things were quieter because the president was traveling he made a habit of slipping out of the office to visit the National Cathedral for some quiet reflection time in its chapels.

An evangelical, Gerson said his study of Catholic social teaching as a staffer on Capitol Hill shaped his understanding of the importance of solidarity with the poor, of subsidiarity as a model of responsibility and of the bonds of community bringing obligations for those in public service.

Favreau, whose mother is Greek Orthodox and his father Catholic, said he was raised with little depth of understanding of Catholicism beyond attending Mass a couple of times a month.

But when he went to the Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, "a new world opened up to me," he said. The school's emphasis on community service and its integrated approach to teaching social justice values in the classroom "led me to want to work in politics," he said.

Both Gerson and Favreau said their service in the White House opened their eyes to the realities of governance at that level, including new appreciation for what their predecessors of the opposite political party did in various situations that they only came to understand once they were in the same positions.

Favreau said he learned to try to approach his job with humility and empathy. "It's very easy to get caught up in trying to score a point against the other side," he said. "But you have to step back and take stock of why you are working here."

Favreau now works at Fenway Strategies, a speechwriting and political consulting firm he co-founded.

The program also included opening comments from Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, who had returned that day from Rome. The cardinal told several stories about Pope Francis, his friend since they were made cardinals at the same time. He urged the audience to do their best in their jobs, starting with the simple step of always being honest.

That set the stage for Carr to outline his vision for the initiative and the Salt and Light Gathering, as building upon Pope Francis's approach to service. That includes focusing on the poor, the forgotten, reaching across differences of faith and politics, and always relying on the words of Jesus, he said.

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