Ite, missa est

Where my career on the Young Adult Catholics blog began. Big Star Restaurant, Wicker Park, Chicago. Via bigstarchicago.com.

Where my career on the Young Adult Catholics blog began. Big Star Restaurant, Wicker Park, Chicago. Via bigstarchicago.com.

“You do know the young adult group has a blog,” my friend told me.

It was an 85-degree evening in August 2010. We sat in front of a gas station in Chicago’s Wicker Park that had become a restaurant, which is the sort of thing that happens in Wicker Park. We were eating artisan tacos and drinking Goose Island, which is the sort of thing you do in Wicker Park.

A month before, I’d taken a trip to Boston. There, I’d audited a graduate course taught by liberation theology pioneer Gustavo Gutierrez. I was at a point in my life when I was stuck. Upon returning home, I felt I’d been given a huge shove to do something with my life right now, and to do it for God’s justice.

By the end of July, I had connected with Call To Action. I started volunteering there. I proceeded to announce it on Facebook. That’s where my friend saw it. She messaged that we should talk.

She had once worked for CTA. Now she was telling me about their young adult ministry, CTA 20/30. Which, she said, had a blog.

“You need to get a column on that blog,” she emphasized, apropos of nothing. We weren’t talking about writing, or my being a writer, at all. Her instruction came from thin air.  Continue reading

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Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

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The cast of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” (image: http://www.mylifetime.com)

Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life.  The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky.  The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a  difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”

An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment.  This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process.  Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God.  Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative.  Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.

 “The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.”  One of the girls hyperventilated.  Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.”  Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks.  To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more.  During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”

Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama.  In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love.  Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.

“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived.  The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.”   An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged.  The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension.  The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.

Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited.  The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today.  For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way.  Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual.  Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.”  Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.

Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service.  From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent.    The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.

Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability.  These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us.  Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.

I found myself wondering:  How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled?  Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days?  Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters?  The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.

Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited.  In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.

More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls.  I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases.  Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.

Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV.  However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners.  As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back.  Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.

In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a  realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”

For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!

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(image: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – http://www.lcwr.org)

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Why the Defeat of DOMA Gives Me Queer American Pride

flagsWhen I think about the progress of marriage equality in the U.S. this year, I cannot help but feel proud, and grateful, to be an America.

My girlfriend is not a U.S. citizen. She’s Brazilian and attends college here on a student visa which expires when she graduates. Before DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was struck down a year ago, I’m not sure we would have been able to stay together in the States and get married.

Now that our rights are the same as opposite-sex couples, the federal government will recognize and honor our union and allow my girlfriend to stay in the country with a marriage visa.

That being said, our marriage still won’t be easy. The struggle towards full equality continues, but today I want to focus on what we’ve gained.

As my girlfriend once said, “I am really thankful for what I have, not for what I don’t have.”

I wrote a poem and wanted to share it with you today. Please share it with anyone who feels overwhelmed by the darkness of this world. Sometimes we get distracted by the negativity around us and we don’t see the good. But God brings light to the darkest places. Continue reading

“We were just sitting there talking”: the Guerrilla Communion saga continues

Last Sunday afternoon, Guerrilla Communion met for the first time in Chicago. We had thirteen young adults, more than one might expect on a crisp but dazzling spring weekend.

We gathered in a cozy little library near the Loop. It was literally an “upper room,” lending a kind of Acts of the Apostles feel. We had soup and salad and quinoa. We also had an array of salsas and chips and homemade desserts.

While we ate, we talked about the joys and struggles of belonging to a church that has profoundly shaped us, but does not always know what to do with us. There was no agenda. It flowed naturally for three hours. Continue reading

in God’s time

We can’t really know what God is up to.

But we can wonder, and we do.  Wondering about what God is doing makes me feel like I am the size of an ant in an expansive universe.   Actually, I am, in a way.

Somehow, though, I am part of it all.

Paradigms of planet, church, religion and humanity are shifting all around us.  Sometimes, these shifts are gradual and gentle, like water flowing silently downstream.  Other times, though, the societal changes are so shocking we almost feel damaged.  We collapse on crosswalks and sprint down the streets of tomorrow while the statues of our ancestors laugh at our blindness.  Can we see the beauty that surrounds us today?

As we listen to the news and hold it up to what we’re working for, we can become discouraged and worried.  What’s happening to our democracy? What’s going on in Christianity? Passions and power quake the church and government and we wonder what to have faith in.

Since I am a young woman religious I keep finding myself on the edge of great movements. Feeling the movements on the edges help me gain confidence in the goodness of God’s guidance.

Over a week ago I was a participant in a wonderfully strange conference.  Giving Voice, a national organization for young women religious, sponsored an inter-generational conference in Chicago to discuss what is happening in this life of ours, religious life.  We came with a sense that God is up to something new and different.  Together we wondered what that was.  The wondering was strange because we were talking about something that we didn’t know.

In Madeleine L’Engle‘s book  A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tries to answer the questions of children.  “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”  I desire to explain what I’ve experienced and sensed, but what is emerging seems to be beyond anything we have ever known.

I know it though, God is up to something. Paradigms are shifting; the world is changing right under our feet.  When the earth moves, it can feel dangerous.  We don’t know what will break around us.  We grip to reactions based in fear and power and doubt survival.  We crash and forget what we most need to move on: each other.  As tumultuous as all the crashing and changing may feel, we can trust God and have hope.  God is in control and shifts can be good.

At the “young nun” conference we sought to contemplate the goodness that vibrates through the groans.  The process was deep and profound.  We listened, prayed, shared, played, questioned, connected and organized.  We learned too.  We were blessed to be with Sandra Schneiders, who is a great historian and theologian.  She’s pretty much the expert on religious life and what is has been, is, and could be.  In other words, Schneiders is a woman who can speak quite well about how God has worked with people throughout time.

We pondered what it means to be religious women in this time of unknowing.  We leaned in, all 150 women religious seemingly stuck in 2011. We felt connected to the deep roots of our ancient tradition and movements toward the future.  In these moments, I pondered how our human minds limit understanding what time really is.  Science agrees with what my spirit senses, too.  Time, as we know it, is an illusion.

So, we’re a part of this illusive time and God needs us to work.  Schneiders’ analysis of this Kairos was based in her insights that the signs of these times are globalization, secularization, pluralization, and de-traditionalization.  We are called to respond to what’s going on and how it impacts spirituality, politics, service and poverty.  We really need to be involved.

I keep wondering.  How are we supposed to respond to God’s call?  If the needs of this time are so great- and they are- then how are we supposed to be present to the suffering and bring life to the future?  What actions do we need to take to birth a new paradigm and way of being?

As we ponder the power of Now, we get to listen to the whispers of the Spirit who always compels us to grow and change.  At the end of the conference, consciousness brought forth the art of poetry.  In peace, we walked through the shift and blessed the words of wonder.  There was silence as we gazed at what the time had emerged.

In art there are answers.  We need not worry about how to bring forth a new paradigm, after all.  We can just focus on living the reign of God.  After we do this for some time, then we’ll be able to look around and be awed that God has used us to help create something new.  Thanks be to God!

Originally from Northeast Iowa, Sister Julia is a  Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Her love for God and God’s good world is manifested in her attempts to be an educator, a youth empower-er, an earth lover, and a peacemaker.  She ministers at an inner-city Catholic high school in Chicago.
Sister Julia also blogs at http://messyjesusbusiness.wordpress.com/. 

A version of this post was previously posted on the Messy Jesus Business blog.

A young nun’s response to “For These Young Nuns, Habits Are The New Radical”

I am fascinated by how the season of Advent/Christmas tends to be a time when the secular media tells stories about how people live their faith. Sometimes it makes me sigh out, “Hey! We don’t just do this faith thing on holidays!  How about some Truth during ordinary times?”

Nonetheless, I appreciate the attention, especially when the stories focus on how our generation keeps the good faith.  Yesterday I was able to catch a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” called “For These Young Nuns, Habits Are The Radical.” The story gives nine minutes of good attention to a lively congregation, the Nashville Dominicans, who have many new, young members.  Please listen to the story, and tell me what you think.  It’s a conversation worth having for all of us who desire to discern how we are each called to live the gospel radically in our own ways.

I really loved the story.  Everything that was described and stated resonated with my own reasons for becoming a young nun.

My only disappointment is that the story failed to mention that communities like mine are still receiving new young members.  Although we don’t come in as crowds, we count.

While I was discerning the sisterhood in college, some of my friends recommended the Nashville Dominicans to me.   I remember requesting materials and considering them. I also remember being attracted to some things about their life, like how many new young members they have.  I don’t remember why for sure, but I decided to eliminate them from my list of possible communities.  Afterwards, I joined my community.

Today I have no doubts that God called me directly to my community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  I am very confident that I am right where I need to be and living the way that God needs me to.  I am grateful and honored to be a member of a holy community of praying, steadfast women of social justice and service.  I am inspired by the wisdom of my elder sisters and the actions of my peers.  I believe that the light that comes out of the adoration chapel in our motherhouse energizes the globe with peace and healing.  We don’t look too traditional, but our motto, “modern lives, sacred traditions”, rings true.

I believe I belong with the FSPA because I fit in, and they support all that I am about. Without having met the Nashville Dominicans I can’t really be sure, but I suspect that they are more concerned with being faithful to the magisterium and upholding church doctrine than I am.  I can’t say that I am not concerned with those things; I believe that it is the call of some parts of the church to do that work.

I have never felt called to dissent against the church.  I do feel called to challenge, however.

As I challenge, I am inspired by the courage and the approach of some of my favorite church reformers: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA.  With great reverence and deep connection to God, all four of these holy disciples stood before church authority and asked for changes.  They pointed to the gospel of inclusivity and stirred the hearts of the powerful.  They stood for and with the powerless.  They prayed, and the changes began.

The reformers of the past have taught me that it is important to ask questions.  We are a church defined by conscience, so we must always offer safe spaces to authentically discern the ways that the Spirit uniquely tugs at our hearts.  As we keep our faith let’s remember that the reign of God in its fullness is unlike anything we have ever seen or experienced before, it’s much better.  I am pretty sure that God’s dreams for us will only come true if we remain open.

I love the diversity within our church.  I am grateful for the witness of the Nashville Dominicans and communities like theirs.  Nonetheless, I don’t think my own gospel witness is any less valid.  The division in our church is very painful and slows us from showing our love.  I scramble for more ways to commune with all types of Catholics, and I want to build bridges.  I believe we need to be diverse because it enriches us, and I pray that we can love and listen to each other through our differences.

I celebrate Christian diversity as Christmas comes closer.  As I sing songs of hope, I am moved to make a proclamation:

Dear journalists who love stories about young nuns,  I hope you’ll notice me too.  I am 29 and I am also a young nun.  I don’t wear a habit and I don’t go to mass at 5:30 in the morning, but I go as often as I can.  I love the pope and I love my gay brothers and sisters.  I pray a lot and I serve the poor. I witness the gospel through my ministries of teaching and writing.  I love Jesus and I proclaim the Truth.  There’s other sisters like me too, and we are also radical. Thank you.  God bless you, Sister Julia

Originally from Northeast Iowa, Sister Julia is a  Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Her love for God and God’s good world is manifested in her attempts to be an educator, a youth empower-er, an earth lover, and a peacemaker.  She ministers at an inner-city Catholic high school in Chicago.
Sister Julia blogs at http://messyjesusbusiness.wordpress.com/ and https://youngadultcatholics-blog.com/.