'Radical Grace' brings actions of three sisters into wider spotlight

As a "star" of the new documentary, “Radical Grace,” Sr. Christine Schenk hadn’t seen the final version of the movie before it premiered in Toronto, Canada, in April, so she wasn’t sure what to expect.

And though a crew with a camera and microphone had followed her around for three years – even to Rome – she was still nervous in the spotlight, especially one with a red carpet.

“You’re not used to attention at that level,” says Schenk, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, who helped found the Catholic reform group FutureChurch.

“But it was so easy to get past it because I saw the responses from the people in the audiences and how inspirational they found it.”

“Radical Grace” was a hit with the fans at the Hot Docs Canadian international documentary film festival, where it drew sold-out audiences at its world launch and was voted an audience favorite. The documentary will debut in the United States on June 20 at the AFI Docs festival in Washington, D.C.

The movie is the directorial bow of 32-year-old Chicago filmmaker Rebecca Parrish, who by sheer happenstance found herself in the lives of three nuns – Schenk, Sr. Simone Campbell and Sr. Jean Hughes – at a time of high drama for American women religious.

Parrish set out to document their work for social justice. Then, in the first of several twists the filming took, news happened in the spring of 2012: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The Vatican group accused the LCWR of “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and criticized it for not promoting church teaching on issues of homosexuality and being “silent on the right to life.”

The censure helped create a new angle for Parrish’s film – feminist nuns whose social justice work places them in direct conflict with the church’s male-led hierarchy.

The movie begins with each of the sisters’ responses to the Vatican’s crackdown. They are incredulous.

“What do they mean by feminist?” says Schenk. “The radical notion that women are equal? The notion that women are people like other people are people? If that’s a sin, guilty as charged.”

Says Hughes: “I have been a sister longer than most of these guys have been alive. And to say to me ‘Your life has no meaning because you’re not doing it my way’ . . . you know, either the Spirit is speaking through all of us or none of us.”

Actress Susan Sarandon recently signed on as an executive producer for the film, giving “Radical Grace” an instant shot of celebrity cache.

“We knew that this was a community that she cared a lot about, and she’s an activist,” says Parrish. “She speaks up boldly about issues she cares about. . . . I do think that her participation helps the project reach more people.”

Sarandon, who received the Oscar for best actress in 1996 for her portrayal of Sr. Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking,” has been vocal for years of her support of American nuns.

“This film comes at a major crossroads in the Catholic church, and the nuns are everything that’s right with the institution,” Sarandon, who was raised Catholic, told the entertainment news publication Variety.

“They stand with the marginalized and won’t be bullied by a hierarchy that still doesn’t treat them as equals.” 

Not ‘radical to me’

Quiet moments in the film resonated deeply with Schenk as she watched herself on the big screen. “I think one of the pieces that I loved very much was the footage of me talking about my own story and being a sister,” says Schenk, who writes a blog called Simply Spirit for National Catholic Reporter.

“I don’t talk about that very much . . . and quite frankly it’s the most meaningful thing in my life.”

She says Parrish and her team “saw things in us that we didn’t see. Because you just go and do what you do but you don’t think it’s any better or worse than what other people do. They were able to pull out the best in us.”

She was especially happy to see the diversity of the audiences that showed up to watch a movie about nuns – “not just the wonderful, gray-haired radical people but also young, spry radical people.”

Young, spry and a little bit radical are also apt descriptions of Parrish, who collected hundreds of hours of footage of the women. (“I really thought it would be one of those little 30-second cameos,” laughs Schenk.)

The idea came from a friend who told Parrish about Hughes and her work with ex-convicts at St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago. The friend thought that Hughes’ work deserved to be seen by a large audience.

Parrish, who considers herself an agnostic “spiritual seeker,” admits to having had preconceived notions about nuns, stereotypes largely formed by Hollywood and pop culture of women in long, flowing habits cloistered away from the rest of the world.

Then, as she filmed, she witnessed moving moments of great power and grace that showed her otherwise.

In one scene, community activist Hughes, an Adrian Dominican, lays a loving hand on the arm of a murderer who weeps as he speaks of his crime. Later Hughes proclaims that it is her “sacred duty” to “try to love people as unconditionally as I can so that they have that experience at least once in their life.”

“She was really down to earth, sassy, hilarious,” says Parrish. “She was definitely not living a life that was apart from the world or striving for this false idea of perfection. She just wanted to be with people and use her life to help other people.”

After several meetings with Hughes beginning in 2010, Parrish “knew that there was something interesting there. I knew I wanted to explore these ideas around doing social work as a spiritual practice. What does that look like? What does her ministry look like on the ground?

“I feel like that’s part of why I wanted to do this project, I wanted to learn. When I first met Jean I had my stereotypes exploded. Then I did my research and I learned about Vatican II and sister formation and liberation theology ... and the transformation of these communities and how they have developed models of living the spirituality of justice.

“It’s also pretty amazing how much these women have transformed, the change that’s happened in less than a generation.”

Hughes led Parrish to other nuns, who led her to others, creating a huge, informal network of women religious across the country for the filmmaker to tap. Parrish and her production team spoke to hundreds of sisters before focusing on just three. Not everyone was as willing as Hughes to speak her mind on camera.

Hughes, who was in poor health and had spent several weeks in the hospital during the making of the film, died earlier this year as Parrish was doing final editing.

“One thing about Jean, she didn’t hold back; she spoke her truth regardless of what the consequences would be,” says Parrish. “I was very struck by how open she was in her critique of the institutional church.

“One of the things that we found when we talked to sisters across the country was that often they were forthcoming in sharing their feelings and views about the church in these private phone calls, but they didn’t want to say these things publicly.

“So we really had to seek out subjects who were willing to speak boldly and from their hearts and not feel constrained by the fact that this would be shared broadly. That was one of the things that we saw in Sr. Simone.”

The ‘nun’s lobby’ hits the road

Cameras? Microphones? No problem. It was all familiar territory to Simone Campbell, a media personality in her own right long before Parrish called her up.

The “Radical Grace” director shadowed Campbell around Washington, D.C., home to the offices of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobbying group that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy once called “the nun’s lobby.”

As NETWORK’s executive director, Campbell fought for passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation providing health care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

That effort initially pitted NETWORK against Catholic church leaders who opposed the legislation because they thought it might fund or expand funding for abortion. The censure of the LCWR was seen by some as retribution for that support.

“They substituted rules for real spiritual leadership,” Campbell told Parrish. “It’s not about the rules. The Gospel demands us to go where there’s need. And when you touch the pain of the world it releases hope into the darkness. That’s what we’re called to do as Catholic sisters.”

But with the censure came a white-hot media spotlight that Campbell grabbed.

“I thought we were anonymous and unseen,” she says in the film. “After the censure people in the United States responded with an amazing outpouring of support for us. So what do we do with this? How do we use this notoriety to lift up issues of economic justice?”

So yet again, Parrish found herself in the middle of a major news story as she documented the birth of the Nuns on the Bus campaign, NETWORK’s protest against U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 proposed budget cuts to programs that assisted the needy.

Before riding along, Parrish went to Des Moines, Iowa, for the kick-off and filmed Campbell’s passionate speech to supporters in a local Catholic church.

Referring to Ryan, Campbell says: “He says it’s his ‘Catholic social teaching’ that made him do that. His social Catholic teaching! If he had never uttered those words I don’t think we’d have a bus trip. He made me mad.”

In another moment captured on the bus, Campbell gives an interview to a female foreign reporter who asks the nun how she responds to people who call her a “radical feminist.”

Campbell laughs.

“I’m a strong woman. I’m a lawyer . . . I ask questions. I make the hard calls,” she says. “It doesn’t seem radical to me.”

Building bridges

In the movie, Campbell’s declaration is followed immediately by part of Parrish’s sit-down interview with Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, one of the bishops appointed to work with the LCWR after the Vatican censure. Parrish uses him throughout to speak on behalf of church hierarchy.

“What did Jesus intend when he only called men to be his apostles?” Paprocki says. “A patriarchal system.”

Statements like that don’t go over well with Schenk, who in one scene is speaking to a group in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I always say it wasn’t just Jesus and 12 men running around Galilee doing good, which is sort of what the mental model is that we grew up with,” she says. “But now we know that many women accompanied Jesus and the male disciples.”

During the 23 years Schenk led Cleveland-based FutureChurch – she stepped down as its founding executive director in October 2013 – she not only helped parishes find ways to stay healthy in the face of priest shortages, but also advocated for expanding the role of women and married men in church leadership.

Parrish was particularly keen to watch Schenk work.

“We really wanted to tell the story of someone who was working directly on the institutional church. What does it mean to be a feminist in this patriarchal institution?” says Parrish.

“For me it’s a very powerful part of the story because she’s working on helping the church become a more inclusive institution, and she’s doing that because she loves it so much and because she’s such a faithful Catholic. If she wasn’t, she would leave.”

Parrish arranged to go with Schenk to Rome in March 2013 for an annual FutureChurch pilgrimage she leads to archeological sites that depict women’s leadership roles in the church’s early days.

“Women really need to know and see themselves in church history,” says Schenk. “We grow up not seeing ourselves in the Biblical stories. You’d think there were no women anywhere.”

Movie-goers see Schenk leading a group through old churches where walls are decorated with images of women preaching, teaching and, in one instance, apparently leading Eucharistic services.

In Rome, lightning struck again for Parrish. While they were filming there the papal conclave convened to elect a successor for Pope Benedict.

As Schenk waited nervously for the white smoke to emerge from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, her sister texted her: “Oh I see we have a pope. Who is she?”

After “Radical Grace” debuts in Washington, Parrish plans to take the movie on the road and screen it at other festivals and in other communities across the country, “including those that might not have access to independent films,” she says.

To hear her plans for the movie it’s clear the young agnostic who was “baptized” as a child in a neighbor’s swimming pool in Atlanta has found a mission.

Several former Catholics who saw the Kickstarter campaign to fund the movie emailed her looking for ways to support the sisters’ work because they “didn’t know there were other people who felt the same way,” says Parrish.

“The very next step is to connect people with different organizations like FutureChurch. We really see that this film can be a bridge for them.

“We’ve also found that the film can be a really neat way to help feminists who maybe identify as non-religious . . . connect with feminists who are part of faith communities and build bridges between those groups.”

Parrish wants people to walk out of theaters with the same desire that caught fire in her while she made it – “a desire to live a calling, to live a life that has integrity in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s volunteer work or a job.

“When you’re doing something that is helping others you’re helping communities be more vibrant. I hope it inspires people to seek out what their own ministry should be.”

[Lisa Gutierrez is a reporter in the Kansas City area whose Sisters Making Mainstream Headlines column appeared in GSR during its first year. She can be reached at lisa11gutierrez@gmail.com.]