The day before Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley went on “60 Minutes” to declare the Vatican investigation of American nuns “a disaster,” the woman who once led those nuns, Joan Chittister, knocked it out of the park before 600 rapt fans who packed the Wellesley College chapel Saturday.
“The rising comes when we are able to commit our lives to something worth being condemned for,” said Chittister, a Benedictine nun.
In 2001, the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, did, in fact, condemn Chittister. They actually threatened unnamed punishments should she insist on going ahead with a speech in Dublin favoring the ordination of women. It was quite the standoff. But then her superior courageously sent the Vatican a letter saying she would not punish Chittister for speaking. The letter included signatures of 127 of 128 of Chittister’s fellow Benedictine sisters. Plus, 35 younger nuns signed a statement asking that any punishment inflicted upon Chittister be inflicted on every one of them as well.
And the men with power backed down.
What a glorious day, at least for those of us who consider nuns’ social justice work— bringing God’s mercy to the poor and disenfranchised — a morally superior example to the one set by a hierarchy which has yet to hold bishops accountable for decades of sexual abuse.
But Chittister’s address Saturday was spiritual and inspirational, not political. There was barely a mention of her favorite topics — women priests, immigration, minority justice, gay rights — and not a word about Pope Francis. In her blogs and other writings she hasn’t said much about him either, though she has expressed cautious optimism.
Instead, she spoke about the 14 Stations of the Cross as a model for how the rest of us “can get through the hard stops of life without batting an eye, how you can lose everything and win in the end by going on.”
In the first station, Jesus is condemned. She compared that to the loneliness and abandonment most of us encounter at some point in life. “You’re accused of something. Workers and neighbors say it’s so. There is no recourse. ‘I can’t call my family; they would be embarrassed.’ ‘My wife or husband wouldn’t understand.’ No one asks you how you feel or what you think. You are now suspect and your reputation has collapsed. Dignity is gone.”
Yet you, like Jesus, must go on, carrying your cross, getting up again and again, she said.
Chittister is 78. Maybe half of the mostly female audience Saturday appeared close to her age, if not past it. Yet if they didn’t get to the college by 9 a.m. for her 9:45 a.m. event, they found two huge parking lots full and had to traipse across campus in the cold from a third big lot. A testament to their devotion, they did, some very, very slowly.
Before she spoke, Chittister herself walked haltingly down the chapel’s center aisle. But once behind the podium, unsteadiness disappeared. She delivered a barnburner, half nun with a mission, half motivational speaker (which she is, actually, doing Ted Talks and soon to appear with America’s most famous spiritual cheerleader, Oprah).
Chittister told the women there: no matter how old or tired or sick you are, decide what you can do in the time you have left, and do it. “Choose what’s best in life over what is comfortable. Chose witness in life over the country club scene … Find a purpose large enough on which to spend yourselves. Torture, climate change, something that says, ‘my life isn’t over. This is yet to be done.’ What will they remember about you when you’re gone? What are you doing now that will not be forgotten? You can say, ‘Oh, I don’t go to those rally things.’ Honey, I hope you remember that explanation when your own property is under water.”
Joan Chittister, a Catholic force of nature, has spoken all over the world. Saturday’s audience came from as far as Maine and Vermont. She’s also written at least 50 books. Her latest, “The Way of the Cross,” follows Saturday’s theme. It’s beautifully illustrated by Janet McKenzie, who created a black Jesus and Mary. It’s perfect for Chittister: provocative, poignant, calling you to examine your own discomforts — and to consider what the Church could be were women like Joan Chittister leading it.
Remember, she said as she ended to a prolonged standing ovation, “These 14 stations are not about suffering, but about how to live through suffering. They’re not about the death of Jesus, but about Jesus’ life born in us to support us through our own death and resurrection.
“We are not meant to be the people of the cross. We are people of the empty tomb. We are alleluia people … And He is here, with us. Emmanuel, Emmanuel.”