Jessie Bazan is the editor of Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church, a new book of letters written by ten young women active in church ministry. She is also the Program Associate for the Communities of Calling Initiative and Collegeville Institute Seminars. Stina Kielsmeier-Cook recently asked Jessie about her relationship with Benedictine nun (and former Collegeville Institute board member) Joan Chittister, as well as how she understands her own vocation as a woman in the Catholic Church.
Tell us a little about your relationship with Sister Joan Chittister and how she became involved in this project.
Thanks to a friend’s nudge, I found myself in Erie, Pennsylvania, for two weeks in June 2018 for the first Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality. Ten millennial, feminist Catholics with master’s degrees in theology (a pretty niche bunch!) gathered to soak in wisdom from S. Joan. It became clear that S. Joan was learning from us, as well. We were sharing the wisdom of our lived experiences between the generations.
Towards the end of our time together, I started thinking about ways to keep the conversations going — and even to invite others who find themselves on the margins of the church. I threw out the idea of writing a book together. The whole group, including S. Joan, signed on from the get go.
Why did you choose to structure the book in a letter format?
I wanted to put names and faces to the big church topics we address. Questions around sexuality, sacraments, church life, and vocation shouldn’t be reduced to theoretical arguments or political talking points. These are deeply personal issues impacting real, embodied people. I think storytelling through letter writing is an effective way to invite readers into greater empathy, as they encounter a fellow human being behind the issue.
In one of your letters to Joan, you describe an experience in the Abbey Church where a scripture was read depicting women as “the weaker sex.” You decide to stand up and leave the church in protest during Morning Prayer. What did you learn from Joan’s responses to you? What did you learn from the response from the monastic community?
First, I want to name the vast majority of my experiences with the Abbey have been positive. I find this community to be as welcoming and inclusive as an all-male monastery can be! But, as Joan told me, “language makes things visible, gives them importance, shapes our thoughts by making conscious what we see.” The language used that day at prayer was harmful. S. Joan affirmed that action needed to be taken.
I’m grateful to report the situation I share in Dear Joan ended on a positive note two years later. This past Easter season, 1 Peter came up again in the reading cycle. I sat in the choir stalls with anxious anticipation that week—and delightfully exhaled when the reader passed over the troubling verse. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I sure did. The patriarchy is such a powerful, pervasive force. I’ve learned to celebrate these moments of transformation, no matter how little they seem.
The other millennial women wrote Joan letters about a myriad of issues: women clerics in the church, sexuality, sisterhood, and abuse in the church. How have your communities responded to these stories?
I’m moved by stories from my co-authors of people in their lives, people who span many generations, who read the book and connected with one of the stories. We’ve heard feedback from so many different people — people who practice their faith and people who don’t, older people, teenagers, women and men, ordained and lay. Each comes with their own truths to tell. The most common comment I hear is: “You went through this, too? Now I don’t feel so alone.”
At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want: to belong, to feel understood? The solidarity generated through the pages of this book is beyond what we could do ourselves. The Holy Spirit is at work — and She’s not afraid to ruffle things up!
How has this project shaped your sense of vocation and calling as a theologian?
I feel more empowered as a lay Catholic woman to speak my truths—and encourage others to do the same. I know now that speaking truth and respecting the church aren’t mutually exclusive. Before this book, I worried about the ramifications of asking hard, honest questions about church teachings. For instance, will I “get in trouble” for believing women can be called to ordination or LGBTQ people deserve the same rights to live an authentic life as anyone else?
Getting “in trouble” isn’t my worry anymore. Church as I know it today is a diverse communion of beautiful, flawed people trying to do good in the world. God calls all of us towards fullness of life. The church is meant to help, not hinder, this quest. I’m called as a theologian and minister to listen, to rejoice with others, to cry with them, too, and to honor the experiences of all as sacred. In this project, my co-authors and I hoped to model authenticity and vulnerability so others might feel free to live the same way.
There are lots of tired conversations about young people – particularly Catholics – leaving the church. Your collection models the strength and struggle that those who stay often endure to stay part of this institution. What do you wish people in the Roman Catholic Church knew about young women members?
People of all ages disaffiliate with the institutional church for many valid reasons. I hope we lament each loss as a church and pray seriously about ways to grow in integrity as a community, so more people feel compelled to stay.
I can’t speak for all young women. We are a diverse group. Some love Adoration or pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Others encounter God through neighbors experiencing poverty or the natural world. Still others return to church to baptize a baby or bury the dead. No matter what path we take, young women are in the pews and out on the streets preaching, teaching, and doing God’s work.