Joan Chittister, OSB, stood with her hands clenched against the podium, ready to preach. It’s a position the Benedictine Sister of Erie has taken thousands of times before in churches, auditoriums, and concert venues around the world. But this time, her audience looked a little different. Ten millennial women sat around plastic tables in the basement of the monastery, notebooks in tow and ready to learn from one of the most prophetic spiritual writers of today.
I was lucky enough to be one of those women. With her steel blue eyes that seem to cut right to the soul, Joan looked at the group assembled before her and demanded:
“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’s summons to our group of young, Catholic, feminist theologians during the first annual Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality (JCICS), held in Erie, Pennsylvania this past June. People under the age of 40 who identify as female and have, or are currently working on, a master’s degree in theology were invited to apply to the Institute. The first cohort included high school teachers, faith formation directors, campus ministers, students, and writers from across the United States. One woman traveled all the way from Australia. I came from central Minnesota, taking time away from my work with the Collegeville Institute’s new Communities of Calling Initiative.
The time together left me brimming with hope for young women leadership in the Church—and deeply grateful for the encouragement of elders. I came into the Institute with big questions about my vocational callings: Will the Catholic Church accept my gifts? Where am I called to minister? How can I make a difference? Being a millennial woman in the Roman Catholic Church is not a cakewalk. Yet, this intelligent, compassionate, curious group of women have embraced their baptismal calls with determination and the “good zeal” Saint Benedict lifts up. They encouraged me to embrace my baptismal call, too. I do not know where or to whom that will lead, but I am convinced of this: We are leaders of the present and drivers of the future, even though 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.
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.” “Those women are too young, too naïve, too progressive.” Listening with the ear of our hearts, as Saint Benedict instructed, we know and believe otherwise. We have different stories to tell.
During our time together at the JCICS, we shared stories of love and heartbreak. We encouraged 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 fifty years earlier, we would all be in the convent by now.
Sprinkled into nearly every conversation, we shared why we stay Catholic, laughing and crying our way through our love for the Church. One talked about her deep love of the Eucharist. Another is driven by Catholic Social Teaching. Many of us have long-standing family ties to Catholicism. We know this is a church of hope—and take seriously our call to be hope for others. On the last night of the Institute, an elderly Sister brought us bags of homemade chocolate chip cookies— parting gifts for the plane ride home. With tears in her eyes, she said: “You all give me hope. My heart is so full! Thank you for being you.” The Church we love yearns for the hope we live. Imagine a Church aflame with millennial insights.
We also need the insights of older feminists like Joan Chittister and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, who paved the path for millennial feminists by standing up and speaking out. During the Institute, our group was treated to talks from sisters 30, 40, and 50-plus years into their religious vocations. 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. And nevertheless, they persist. 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 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.
I feel called to keep sparking imaginations. At the conclusion of the Institute, I pitched an idea to my classmates and Joan: let’s write a book together. One of the greatest spiritual writers of our time and today’s up-and-coming theologians surely have more wisdom to share on sisterhood, speaking truth, and standing up to the patriarchy. Twenty-Third Publications agreed. Our book, tentatively titled Dear Joan, is due out in Fall 2019.
This article was adapted from a piece originally published in the Global Sisters Report.