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Sr. Simone Campbell, a founder of Nuns on the Bus, two cross-country trips shining a light on social justice issues, says at a recent fundraiser for the Spiritual Life Center in West Hartford, CT, that the Vatican’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was painful, but also evidence of the Spirit at work since it brought attention to the lobby group Network’s efforts. (Although in her talk she asks for prayers for an upcoming meeting she’d be having with US Congressman Paul Ryan, author of a proposed budget that cuts social services, neither Network nor Ryan’s office would provide information about how that “private” conversation went.)
Below: my coverage of Sr. Simone’s talk for the June/July issue of the national progressive Catholic newspaper Today’s American Catholic:
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The Vatican’s rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been “painful … hurtful … shocking,” says activist Sister Simone Campbell, who heads the social justice lobby Network and is the public face of the Nuns on the Bus tour. “We’re getting in trouble for doing the very thing Pope Francis is doing.”
And yet, she adds, “I do know that the Holy Spirit is using it for good. Nuns on the Bus would’ve never happened without it.”
An investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI resulted in a censure of the LCWR in 2012, which Pope Francis recently reaffirmed. At issue are what the inquisitors called “serious doctrinal problems,” such as LCWR’s focus on social activism rather than on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.
Journalists and commentators have followed periodic developments in the dispute, with both sides visibly struggling to maintain a civil tone, but neither side budging. Vatican-watcher John Allen may have put his finger on it when he was quoted in USA Today saying that the conflict between the bishops and the sisters is really about “what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century.”
All of the sturm und drang has drawn welcome public attention to Network, which had labored on Capitol Hill for 40 years but “hadn’t gotten anyplace,” said Sister Simone in her talk. The lobbying group even had proposed a “faithful budget” as an alternative to the ones riddled with social service cuts which Catholic U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan keeps putting forward, only to see it ignored.
Small and broke, lacking even enough money to take out a print ad, Network was batting around “little ideas” about how it might grow itself, said the 68-year-old Sister of Social Service, and that’s when word of the censure came down.
“The Vatican answered our prayer by naming our little organization Network in the censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as being a bad influence on Catholic sisters in the United States because we promote,” she said as if scandalized, “radical feminist themes!”
“By giving us this light, this moment,” she said, practically blessing the bishops, “we got to lift up the story, and our nation began to talk about poverty again, about the anguish of poverty, about folks working full-time but still living in poverty, about people struggling to find jobs. … The joy of the Gospel is in dealing with the censure in a way to fulfill mission. It’s painful, but it’s gift.”
Sister Simone’s staunch support of the Affordable Care Act (she was at the White House signing ceremony), together with her keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, her two nationwide Nuns-on-the-Bus tours highlighting poverty and immigration issues, plus her dozens of television appearances on everything from 60 Minutes to cable shows with more partisan leanings, both left and right, have turned Sister Simone into the face of liberal Catholicism.
“Oh, so you’re a communist,” she quoted Sean Hannity as saying on his show. On Real Time with Bill Maher, the audience cheered as she verbally smacked a ruler across the knuckles of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza for claiming that increasing the minimum wage would quash innovation.
“Go Google me on there. It’s worth watching,” she urged the audience at her talk, taking pains to note that it’s the Spirit at work, not herself, she’s promoting.
As her speech on the intersection of faith and politics unfolded, Sister Simone was alternately incredulous (“In the richest nation on earth people die just for losing a job?”); miffed (“They’re not really pro-life, they’re only pro-birth”); and funny (“Have you noticed that [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell does not have lips? That just seems wrong”). At one point, she admitted to having neatly categorized certain people – “Hannity,” for instance, was “not to be seriously engaged with” – but then she realized that “the spiritual life teaches us that we’re all in this together, that we are all a part of God’s plan.”
Relatedly, she recalled a Zen-Christian retreat she’d made, when the director instructed her to pursue “radical acceptance” of her opponents. After first resisting, she decided “if I was at odds with the God in them, I’m at odds with the God in me. Oh, no! The thing that I value most is to be one with God.”
But just when she’d arrived at “that holy place” of acceptance,” she said, the retreat director instructed her to “now add in fighting.”
“Yes, isn’t that what you do in Washington, D.C.?”
What putting the two together brought her to, she said, is an emphasis on fighting for – “To fight for the folks that we meet. To fight for this alternative vision that Pope Francis speaks of. To fight for something better in our society.”
Pulling mementoes from her missal, Sister Simone held up each card and told the stories of people she’d met along her journey: there’s Margaret, who died because when she’d lost her job in the recession ad could no longer afford cancer screenings, despite a worrisome family history of the disease; there’s Robin, who works full-time for a profitable company but still must sleep in a homeless shelter; and there’s Cynthia, whose husband can only afford treatment for stage-three cancer thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
On the bus trip promoting immigration reform, she met Ida, a 17-year-old in Savannah, Georgia, who takes her parents to work every day before school, warning them, ‘“Don’t go off with anybody else, and if you do, call me and tell me who it is.’ … She is terrified that her parents will get deported.”
Then there was Jackie, 19, whose parents have been deported, so, besides working and attending community college, Jackie is raising her younger sisters – “ and every Sunday she’s calling [her parents] to get advice.”
“Our system is broken,” said Sister Simone. “That Jackie would have to raise her siblings, by herself, at 19: ugh, ugh, ugh.”
These people, she said, “have broken my heart. Now the good news is that when your heart is broken open, there’s room for a lot more people. There’s no limit to whom you can bring into your heart. The spiritual becomes: how broken open is your heart, and have you been able to release some hope into this darkness?”
Sister Simone then asked the audience’s prayers, as she was scheduled to meet in a few days with Congressman Ryan. “He’s been doing these hearings on poverty. I want to find out from him what breaks his heart.” (Spokespeople for neither Network nor Ryan’s office would say how the private meeting went.)
Before wrapping up her talk by reading two poems from her recently published book Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community (HarperOne), Sister exhorted the audience to forgo meaningless talk and instead do what she called “grocery store missionary work.”
“Say to the person in front of you or behind you, something important, like, ‘Hey, I’m kinda worried about minimum wage’ … or say, ‘Have you thought about immigration reform? I really wish they’d get that done. What do you think?’”
Asked how she keeps from getting overwhelmed by the proliferation of problems in the world, she said, “The reason why we get overwhelmed is if we think we’re in charge, we’re in control. And the fact is, we’re not. I just have to do my part. And part of my part is letting my heart be broken by these folks so I can tell their stories.”
As for how the standoff between the Vatican and the LCWR may end, she recalled the Old Testament story of the burning bush: “As long as we’re faithful to letting God flame up in our lives, we won’t be destroyed, so we just have to be faithful.”
“Sister Simone’s positivity was just inspiring,” said Nina Rusko, of Sandy Hook, CT, a town still healing from the elementary school massacre. “It was just the type of spirit that takes us from the negative to a way of being fruitful in our talking about these very, very difficult questions.”