Radical Grace follows three U.S. Catholic nuns who ponder what it means for them to be devoted to a historically male-driven institution like the Vatican. United by common bonds, the nuns’ courageous work follows social teachings of justice, equality, and freedom from poverty and oppression.
In the following UNFILTERED blog post, Radical Grace director Rebecca Parrish reflects on finding common ground with the nuns and how she became drawn to their brand of spirituality.
I am a millennial “none,” part of a growing demographic of religiously unaffiliated people. Who would have guessed that I’d develop such a close connection with Catholic nuns?
Before embarking on Radical Grace, my understanding of Catholic Sisters was completely informed by sexist Hollywood images — think Sister Act and Blues Brothers. I thought all nuns wore habits, lived in cloisters and were politically conservative.
Then a friend introduced me to Sister Jean Hughes — and she exploded all my stereotypes. She was a truth-teller with a biting wit and a huge heart that just engulfed you in her love. Her ministry involved helping people exiting the prison system to find healing and to function in the outside world. She did not see herself as superior to them, but rather understood deeply that poverty, histories of abuse and our country’s racist mass-incarceration policies, not just personal fault, had landed these men in a soul-crushing penal system. Being a part of their healing was an honor and a privilege and an opportunity to witness a “resurrection” of the human spirit. These men were her spiritual teachers and by participating in their journey she found her own.
As soon as I met Jean, I wanted to hang out with her all the time. Though I’m not a person of faith, I am a spiritual seeker: a seeker of meaning, purpose and interconnection. When I met Jean and her fellow sisters, I learned that they had cultivated a spirituality of social justice that, despite our different religious beliefs, I wanted to draw from and share with others.
The sisters of Radical Grace show that when we’re acting for justice we experience “communion” in the deepest sense, the joy of union with other beings. As sister Jean says, “God is not an old white guy with a beard. God is the impetus for good.”
Their spiritual grounding also gives them the strength to stand up to injustices perpetuated by the patriarchal hierarchy of their own Catholic Church. When the U.S. bishops’ organization opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, another sister, Simone Campbell of NETWORK, organized the leadership of nuns’ orders across the country to stand up publicly in support. For this transgression, the Vatican named her organization in their censure of U.S. nuns.
While the experience was deeply painful, Sister Simone also came to see it as a gift from the Holy Spirit. Leveraging her newfound notoriety resulting from the censure, she organized the famous Nuns on the Bus cross-country tour series to spotlight the needs of the most vulnerable communities in the U.S.
It was her spiritual practice that revealed to her the gift and opportunity in the Vatican’s attempt to silence her. Rather than obey a religious doctrine that sought to hem her in, Simone connected with the “mischief of the holy spirit,” that she felt in her own heart. “It’s not about the rules,” Simone says, “the Gospel demands us to go where there are needs, and when you touch the pain of the world, it releases hope into the darkness.” She leads me to ask, Where in my life can I discover the opportunity in a challenge? How can I break away from the safety of the rules in order to make mischief for justice?
Grounded in a firm Catholic faith, Sister Chris Schenk takes church patriarchy head on, advocating for women’s equality at all levels of church leadership, including in clerical offices which are exclusively male. Drawing on archeological evidence of women’s leadership in the early Church, Sister Chris upends the notion, popular in U.S. political discourse, that Christianity is inherently patriarchal. She shows us that throughout history, the definition of faith has always been contested, wrapped up in human power struggles. Sister Chris, like many other sisters I met, follows the teaching that she has a right and a responsibility to discern Catholic teaching for herself and to fight for justice.
I realized that I had bought the right-wing political argument that faith is inherently conservative, that those who disagree should just leave. In the same way that President Trump does not get to define for me what it means for me to be an American, priests, bishops and even the Pope do not have the spiritual authority to define what it means for the sisters to be Catholic. The sisters work to, in the words of Sister Chris, “carry a light on behalf of a God, who is inclusive, who loves, who welcomes” is even beginning to bear fruit under Pope Francis. Though he is no feminist, the pressure from Catholic organizers like Chris has opened a crack in the monolith. Recently, Pope Francis opened a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons.
Before I met the sisters of Radical Grace, I thought of a cross necklace or pin as an indicator of someone to avoid. I thought that they would judge me as a queer person or want to limit my power as a woman, and that we’d have nothing in common. An unintended consequence of the Vatican’s investigations of U.S. nuns was that it opened my eyes to the values we share. Most importantly, I learned that we share the same core values of inclusion and justice.
Regardless of your faith, I hope the film will be an opportunity for you to reflect and to build community. I invite you to watch the broadcast with friends. Afterwards, you may wish to use one of our discussion guides to dig deeper into the themes of the film and reflection what a spirituality of social justice means for your life. If you’re interested in hosting a watch party during the March 14 broadcast, sign up here and we’ll provide you with resources to make the most of the experience.
Director and Cinematographer Rebecca Parrish has run her Chicago-based film company, Interchange Productions, since 2007. She has worked as an editor and cinematographer with Peabody and Sundance award-winner Judith Helfand, Kindling Group and Kartemquin Films. In 2012 Rebecca produced and directed the interactive web documentary and engagement campaign, Protect Our Defenders, telling the stories of military sexual assault survivors as part of an advocacy campaign to reform the military justice system. The Protect Our Defenders project won the YouTube DoGooder nonprofit video award and the Salsa Labs 2012 Hot Tamale Award for outstanding campaign organizing. Parrish is also an editor on Radical Grace.