Young women ask difficult questions to challenge church at recent Joan Chittister institute

Breanna Mekuly


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Jacqueline Small

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Eight female-identifying Catholics in their 20s and 30s, all of them students or recent graduates of programs in theology or divinity, gathered June 17-30 at Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania, for the inaugural Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality: A Feminist Benedictine Option.

The institute was a two-week intensive course on the work of author and lecturer Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, especially her writings on monasticism and women in the Catholic Church. This program was offered by Benetvision, a ministry of Sister Joan and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie that offers spirituality resources as part of an ongoing effort to support young female Catholic theologians, who are often shut out of the church and struggle to find ways to use their gifts and education.

For the past three summers, Benetvision has hosted summer interns, including the two of us, in an effort to bring together the rich legacy of Sister Joan and the Erie Benedictine community and the questions and ideas of young female Catholic theologians. We are now on staff with Benetvision, and we helped plan the institute, hoping that this would be a way to connect more young feminist seekers and scholars with each other and with the wisdom of Sister Joan and her community.

We were thrilled by the results: Eight young feminist theologians — master's students, campus ministers, a faith formation director, high school teachers, and a Benedictine Sister of Erie in initial formation — came from across the country and Australia to take part in the institute along with Benedictine Sr. Val Luckey, a 30-year-old sister in formation with the Erie Benedictines. They shared their wisdom and their dreams with us, with the other members of the institute staff, with Sister Joan, and with the prioress and subprioress of the Erie Benedictine community, Srs. Anne Wambach and Susan Doubet, who attended and participated in sessions every day.

The participants came with stories to tell and hopes to share, and they also came prepared to learn. The institute was designed to allow participants to academically and experientially explore Benedictine life through the lens of Sister Joan and her community.

Each morning, the group convened for prayer, followed by discussions of Sister Joan's books, the tenets of monastic life, and an exploration of great Benedictine women of history. These discussions, as well as experiences with lectio divina and service in Benedictine ministries, came together with the help of participants, staff and other members of the Erie Benedictine community, both sisters and oblates. At the end of the institute, each of the participants presented a final project she worked on over the course of the two weeks. These projects included book proposals, lesson plans, a musical composition and essays.

"It was exciting and invigorating to have these women here, to hear their stories, to see their enthusiasm," said Sr. Ann Hoffman, who, with the other Erie Benedictines, had opportunities to mingle with the participants throughout the two weeks for meals and prayer. "They're bright young women who are so sincere and are asking difficult questions while striving to challenge the church to move forward. They have so much to offer as they go forward. I pray that these women can fulfill their dreams and that we can support them."

Because the conversations between sisters and participants were so rich, one of the main highlights of the institute was the panel discussion offered at the beginning of the second week, when the eight participants told the Benedictine community about their experiences in graduate school and in ministry. This was an opportunity for the women to share what gifts they bring to the church, where they have struggled as young feminists in the church, and the sort of support they need to continue doing their good work.

Many of the Benedictine sisters were moved by the panel and said it shifted their perception of the participants from young girls to adult women who are already acting as valuable leaders and ministers in the church.

"Hearing the participants talk about their visions for the future really nourished and rekindled hope and energy in me," said Sr. Carolyn Gorny-Kopkowski, who attended the panel. "I heard one young woman say, 'It's a heavy burden to carry other people's hope.' That reminded me that I still have work to do. As I'm growing older, I feel really driven to pass on my resources. I want to journey with these young women so they can learn something about the past and connect it to the future."

Along with the intergenerational connections these women made, part of why the institute was so special for those of us in early adulthood is because it is so rare for young progressive Catholic women to have time and space together where our faith and our leadership abilities are respected.

Being together in person was really powerful and necessary to experience deep spiritual relationships, something so many of us deeply seek. Who knows what this group of women will look like going forward? But we do now know that as young Catholic feminists, we're not alone. And we know that we found a place where we committed ourselves to engaging and encouraging each other on a powerful level, with the help of other strong women of faith who have supported each other for decades.

The following are reflections written by two of the institute's participants.


Jessie Bazan works for the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from St. John's University School of Theology and Seminary.

"Shout your truth. Many will tell you to quit, soften it, be more careful. But if you want to make even the slightest change, do not listen to them. Keep shouting. Shout louder. That's what it means to be a witness."

This was Joan Chittister's summons to our group of young Catholic feminist theologians during the first Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality. After two transformational weeks together, my cup overflows with hope. I know this intelligent, compassionate, curious group of women will live into the truth of our callings. We are leaders of the present and drivers of the future. We have been educated and formed in a tradition that too often says: "You do not belong. Sit in the back. Be quiet."

And still, we show up.

We believe differently. Day after day, class after class, God moment after God moment, we show up. Our stories dispute the narratives being written about us. "Millennials are leaving the church," they say. "Feminism and Catholicism don't mix," they assume. "Those women are too young, too naive, too progressive," they bemoan. Listening with the ear of our hearts, we know and believe otherwise. We have different stories to tell.

During our time together at the institute, our group of 20- and 30-something theologians told stories of love and heartbreak. We lifted up a theology of liberation and marched in the streets for peace with a group of nuns. We lamented the mistreatment of trans women of color and the absence of women preaching from the pulpit. We wondered aloud why liturgies limit God to "he" and how to navigate the demands of work and relationships. We prayed. We danced. We watched the sun set. We joked, with some seriousness, that if it was 50 years earlier, we would all be together in the convent by now.

In nearly every conversation, we shared why we stay Catholic, laughing and crying our way through our love for the church. Catholic social teaching, familial ties and a deep desire for the Eucharist were just a few reasons given. It's evident that a deep hope cuts through the darkness of our gardens. The church we love yearns for the hope we live. Imagine a church aflame with our insights.

We also need the insights of older feminists like Joan Chittister and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, whose risks of standing up and speaking out paved the path for millennial feminists today.

During the institute, our group was treated to talks from sisters who are 30, 40 and 50-plus years into their religious vows. These women embody the practices of Benedictine spirituality: stewardship, hospitality, community and more. They faced and continue to face backlash because they are a group of women doing the radical work of Christ. Nevertheless, they persisted. A youth art house, soup kitchen, day care center and job-placement organization are a few of the ministries that bear the name "Benedictine Sisters of Erie."

These women did not let the injustices of the patriarchy sidetrack their callings to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and demand peace for all. Their practical wisdom is a gift for those of us moving toward the front lines today. It's true — together, we can imagine a more inclusive, feminist church into being.


Teresa Coda is a hospital chaplain and a director of faith formation at a Catholic church in Providence, Rhode Island. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School.

High expectations are my Achilles' heel. I can distinctly remember sitting in the middle of my family's living room during my seventh birthday party with tears streaming down my face because the festivities my parents planned were not going exactly as I had envisioned. I regret to admit that, even at age 29, I haven't entirely outgrown this character trait.

It is a small miracle, then — and a testament to the strength, depth and value of the program —that my expectations for the Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality were not only met, but wildly surpassed.

My expectations were met my first morning at Mount St. Benedict as I gathered around a table with the institute participants, Sister Joan, several other sisters from the Erie Benedictine community, and Joan's biographer, Tom Roberts. For over an hour, we had a dynamic conversation about everything, including how we tell the stories of our lives, how we imagine God and how the church tells the story of God. It was a discussion in which everyone at the table participated, we shared hearty laughs and sighs of sadness, and we affirmed each other's value while also calling each other into new ways of thinking.

The dynamics of this opening session were relived over and over again throughout the two-week institute in our formal and facilitated discussions about the pillars of monasticism, great Benedictine women and Joan's books, as well as in our informal conversations over meals with the community and while watching the sun set over Lake Erie.

As a young Catholic woman working in a progressive yet inherently patriarchal parish and diocese, these discussions were exactly what I needed. I needed to know, first, that these conversations are happening and that I have something to contribute to them. I needed to have my questions affirmed and explored rather than ignored or silenced. And I needed to know that I am not alone in simultaneously holding a deep love for the Catholic Church and a deep desire for change. My notoriously high expectations were met in these moments of learning from my peers, receiving guidance from wisdom figures and being valued as the curious and questioning Catholic that I am.

My expectations were exceeded when I realized that these experiences weren't just satisfying in the moment: They were changing me and would have lasting impact on the way I view my vocational calling as a woman within the church, my sense of personal responsibility concerning justice issues and my spirituality.

During one of our group's first conversations with Joan, she implored us to speak our truth, to be like Mother Jones, who once said, "I am not afraid of the pen, or the scaffold, or the sword. I will tell the truth wherever I please." Joan's instruction initially overwhelmed me: Finding my truth, let alone speaking it, seemed like a daunting task on that first day of the institute.

But over the next few days, I began to realize my truth is no more far off and needing to be found than God is. God's right here, right now, around us and within us; we just need to pay attention. Similarly, it's not that I need to go in search of my truth so much as I need to slow down enough to let it bubble up within me, to have the patience and commitment to ponder it and practice naming it, and to surround myself with wise individuals who will listen and help me sort out the truth from the rubble of opinions, hang-ups and lies I tell myself. The conversations of the institute provided a space for all of these tasks. They were petri dishes for truth-speaking.

Now that I'm back home, I can't unlearn that there is truth within me. I can't forget that the words I say — or don't say — have an impact on my sense of self, other marginalized individuals and future generations. I can't apathetically accept that status quo within the church where I work and the community in which I live. I left the institute with a sense of conviction and calling I didn't expect. My weeks at the Mount with Joan, her community and a group of fellow young seekers changed me: They helped me find my voice and planted the seeds of courage within me to use it to speak my truth.

Talk about exceeding expectations!

[Breanna Mekuly works with the Benedictine Sisters at their soup kitchen and with Sr. Joan Chittister's ministries. She is also involved in Call to Action's 20/30 cohort of Young Adult Leaders. Jacqueline Small works for Monasteries of the Heart and Benetvision, ministries of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. She has a master's degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a master's degree in social work from Rutgers University.]