A new feature-length documentary follows the social justice activism of three American nuns deemed "radical" by the Vatican.
Drawing on the brave commitments to social justice of Sisters Simone Campbell, Jean Hughes and Chris Schenk -- all members of activist group Nuns on the Bus -- "Radical Grace" explores what it really means to be faithful in an unjust world. In 2008, the Vatican launched an investigation on the nuns, which was ongoing until April 16 of this year when it ended suddenly.
The Huffington Post spoke with "Radical Grace" filmmaker Rebecca Parrish about nun stereotypes and how the end of the Vatican's investigation might affect the documentary's impact.
What inspired you to make the film?
The story for me is also part of a personal spiritual journey. I identify as agnostic, but I still have a spiritual hunger. I’ve found that the most spiritual moments for me have been when I’m involved in social justice work. I was interested in how I could approach that work from an explicitly spiritual place. A friend had helped to build a school with Sister Jean [Hughes] for people formerly incarcerated, and I was totally into the way that these Catholic nuns approached their work. Even though I don’t share their religious beliefs, there was a lot I could learn from [them] and a lot that I wanted to share.
My only exposure to Catholic nuns was the stereotype we see in Hollywood. [Sister Jean] exploded all those stereotypes and was somebody I wanted to be around and learn from. I was also fascinated by what it means to be a feminist in a patriarchal institution.
What were the logistics of making the documentary?
I met Jean in 2010 and really filmed from then even up through now. With the recent announcement from the Vatican [about the investigation ending] we’re going to tweak the end slightly for future screenings. With the Nuns on the Bus, we were there for their first bus tour for the whole thing, and that was really the focus of the film. We were there for the whole first bus tour and did a little bit with the second one.
The crew was very small. It was just typically me and a sound person. Me and the sound person were sharing a hotel room, sometimes sharing a bed, and keeping the budget really low.
Sister Simone Campbell makes a stop on the Nuns on the Bus tour.
What are some common misconceptions about nuns that the film might dispel?
Most of the images that we see, whether that’s in the news media or film, sisters are in habits. Sisters haven’t been wearing habits for decades. So there’s that depiction. But what struck me the most was just how nonjudgmental they are. Just to have people of faith who are totally open and not judgmental of people of other faith traditions or no traditions was very affirming for me because the voice of faith leaders in our country for a long time was not that. I think that’s starting to shift.
There’s a lot that we can learn about the way [these nuns have] combined their social justice work and their spirituality. There are a lot of times in the film where they could take a safer route, but the choice they made was whatever felt like it had the most integrity. They were always acting with complete integrity and alignment [with their spiritual beliefs.]
Do you think the effect of the documentary might be different now that the Vatican has ended its investigation of American nuns?
In December there was the other announcement about the Apostolic Visitation, so that was also a very celebratory thing seeing the Vatican recognize that the sisters have responded to the needs of the modern world. This feels similar in a lot of ways. One of our sisters, Sister Chris Schenk, was one of the organizers of many of the vigils that happened around the country in response to the censure [in 2012]. Part of the conclusion is looking at the impact that outpouring of support had on the Vatican.
So in that sense it’s a celebratory end and we’re seeing the fruits of the work of the sisters and the Catholics around the country that supported them. But we’re making it clear that the struggle isn’t over. The institution is still structured the same way and that’s a place we need to see change whether that’s women’s equality or the decentralization of power in the church. Sister Chris’s belief is that everyday Catholics and laypeople should also have power. It’s not "just add women and stir," Sister Chris says.
What does the title, "Radical Grace," mean to you?
One thing I like about the title is it can mean a lot of different things. The Vatican in the investigation of the sisters said that they were promoting radical feminist themes as if that was a bad thing. For me, radical feminism really means looking for a social structure that’s equal for all people and that’s radically different from the structure we have now.
Grace is a harder things to pin down or define. I almost don’t want to. But for me, what it’s ultimately about is just being deeply connected with one’s own inner knowing and acting boldly on that. “Grace” is the inner knowing, “radical” is the boldness. That’s the meaning that’s the strongest to me.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.