Once again, when speaking to Congress Thursday morning, Pope Francis pointed to the family as the primary reason for his trip to the United States. He spoke, in a particular way, about the young and their hope. The World Meeting of Families has been going on in Philadelphia throughout the week and David Sao is one of the young Catholics who is waiting to greet Pope Francis as he looks forward to the possibilities for his millennial generation to help restore the culture. We talk about his group, The Culture Project, what might lie ahead, and the theme of the week: “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is it about the culture that you’ve made a project?
David Sao: Our lives are a project of gradually becoming more and more the person we were made to be, and our culture is no different. We see that it takes work to make a culture good, true, and beautiful. Though a culture will never be perfect, America has much room to grow in upholding the dignity of the human person. Abortion, pornography, sex trafficking, and “the hookup culture” are places where The Culture Project gives the lion’s share of our energy. Our “project” is to restore the centrality of the human person to these spaces where human dignity is being disregarded, abused, or forgotten.
Lopez: “Restore culture” is a motto of The Culture Project. What do you plan to restore it to? How is that not a backward enterprise?
Sao: Restoration of our culture does not mean a throwback to an outdated mode of life, nor is it an empty sentiment of nostalgia for “the way things used to be.” Restoring culture means reawakening the truths that are already written in the human heart. At our natural core, we desire authentic love, truth, and beauty. Our job is simply to remind people of what they already want.
Lopez: How is a young Philadelphia Catholic like you anticipating the pope’s visit?
Sao: I’ve been super privileged to travel the world and see Pope Francis and meet his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but this is home turf. This is my home. I was born in Philadelphia. I became Catholic at the age of 18 in Philadelphia. I work for an amazing apostolate based in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is home. Being part of the Philadelphia Church is a gorgeous experience of diversity — there are people from all racial, social, and economic backgrounds. There are young families and elderly persons. The priests are warm but unafraid to speak the truth. They are good shepherds and have gone out of their way to help me, when, for instance, I just really needed someone to talk to. I have been cared for with a fatherly care. And the pope’s visit is just a further extension of that care. Pope Francis is a strong but gentle shepherd and I look forward with great excitement to his coming. We will be here welcoming Pope Francis with some Brotherly Love.
Lopez: How does the culture “become fully alive”?
Sao: The culture becomes fully alive when individuals become fully alive! It starts with each one of us, so I see it as my job to live my life as fully as I can each day — spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. I am not perfect at this, and I don’t have a fantastic day every day. To be fully alive is to know and to embrace the man and woman we were created to be. To become fully alive is a series of self-discoveries. Discovering how you love, and love better; loving your neighbor, and even your enemy; making the right choices in difficult moments; and getting rid of the habits in life that do the opposite. If all individuals in a culture choose to love and care for one another, you will see a culture thriving and fully alive.
Lopez: What is your favorite Culture Project success story?
Sao: My favorite success story has to be the founding of The Culture Project. In July 2014, a group of 30 young men and women quit their jobs in the hope of restoring our culture. This was not an easy decision for any of us; all of us were leaving behind salaries and financial stability. Why did we leave our jobs? We wanted something better, bigger, and we were dreamers who believed a dream could be a reality. Here we are, 14 months later, a not-for-profit apostolate, growing and thriving. We have encountered tens of thousands of young men and women around the U.S. about the innate dignity of every human being, born and pre-born, and about the power of love for one another in relationships and in society. We have speaking requests from around the world and are even working with a group of young people in Australia to start The Culture Project there!
LOPEZ: What’s the hardest thing to figure out from day to day?
Sao: Day to day, it’s hard to figure out what to do first! There is so much work to be done in The Culture Project office and out in the mission field every day. Prioritization can be tricky when there are so many great things to accomplish.
Lopez: What motivates someone to join The Culture Project?
Sao: What motivates many of us is knowing that, even in the midst of trials or sometimes suffering, there is great purpose to the work we are doing. Nothing is for naught! We are motivated by the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us, standing for human dignity and sexual integrity without fear: people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Saint John Paul II — men and women who were heroes and whom we can strive to emulate, even if it is in a more ordinary or less public way.
Lopez: What’s your favorite Culture Project venture?
Sao: I am having a great time meeting families who want to invest in our work. We at The Culture Project speak not only to teenagers, but also to parents who care about the future of their children. We want to restore culture starting with individuals, and – building from there — families. I love meeting families and learning why they feel passionate about restoring our culture to one that is more true, more beautiful. I love learning families’ stories.
Lopez: What do you most want a young person to know about life?
Sao: I want young people to know that life is worth living. I want them to know that they were made out of love for love. I want them to know that they don’t have to settle for anything less than being treated with dignity and respect. I want them to know that their value comes not from anything they do, but from who they are — human beings, destined for greatness.
Lopez: And what do you want to know about life?
Sao: I want to know how to suffer with people well. I think a big part of cultural restoration is going to come through a greater sense of compassion for others. How do I enter in to someone’s sadness? How do I give them comfort particular to their type of grief or struggle? These are things I want to know.
Lopez: How do young people find their way to you?
Sao: Young people find their way to us in as many ways as there are people! We have thousands of young people following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. We host guys’ nights, girls’ nights, and even events for teens to come together to be a community for one another. We encounter siblings, students, single moms, former abortion-clinic workers, priests, atheists, aunts, uncles, roommates, teammates, and everyone in between. Our job doesn’t stop at 5:00 p.m. on Friday. We are constantly seeking out others to encounter and inviting them to something greater than all of us. We have been rapidly growing through our social-media platforms.
Lopez: Will you be doing this all your life?
Sao: The Culture Project is a lifelong mission, whether we are technically “employed” with The Culture Project or not. Only God knows where I’ll be, but I do hope that I will still be with The Culture Project. It’s an amazing initiative and a growing movement.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for?
Sao: I am most grateful for the opportunity to work with some of the most sacrificial, driven, and faithful people that the Church has to offer. It brings me to tears sometimes when I think how lucky I am to work with them. We laugh, we fight, and we work hard and play hard. We are not only colleagues but a family fighting the good fight.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. Lopez is a co-founder of Catholic Voices USA, which has been working with the World Meeting of Families and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in preparation for the pope’s visit and has worked with The Culture Project.