"The Holy Spirit is making mischief," Sr. Simone Campbell says near the end of the forthcoming documentary "Radical Grace."
Campbell's quote is an apt summary of the film, which captures one of most extraordinary years in the Catholic church's recent history: beginning in April 2012 with the outraged response to the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, reaching a crescendo with the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and drawing to a surprising conclusion with the election of Pope Francis in March 2013.
When director Rebecca Parrish first set out to make "Radical Grace" in 2010, even the most seasoned vaticanista could not have predicted these dramatic turns of events.
Parrish had much simpler aspirations. She was interested in documenting community-based social justice work. A friend recommended that she meet Sr. Jean Hughes, an Adrian Dominican who works with formerly incarcerated convicted felons on Chicago's West Side. But Parrish was hesitant. Growing up marginally Episcopalian, she had no understanding of progressive Catholicism.
"I thought nuns were still cloistered and wearing habits," she said in a phone interview last week. "I had no understanding of how religious communities had developed since Vatican II."
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After meeting Hughes, Parrish was "drawn to the idea that working for social justice can be a spiritual practice."
"I've always had a spiritual hunger, even though I'm still not sure exactly what I believe in," she said. "The moments in my life that have felt the most spiritual always happened when I was participating in social justice work."
She agreed that the stories of the sisters needed to be told and began her project by filming Hughes.
After hundreds of conversations with women religious throughout the country, Parrish eventually added two more subjects to the documentary: Campbell, president of NETWORK, and Sr. Christine Schenk, founding director of FutureChurch and a columnist for NCR. It was early 2012, and Parrish had no idea that her project would quickly draw the "Radical Grace" team into the most high-profile religion stories of the year.
The filming of Campbell began just before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its doctrinal assessment, which severely criticized LCWR for overemphasizing social justice work and underemphasizing the church's teachings on women, contraception and homosexuality.
Parrish's timing proved serendipitous because her cameras not only witnessed Campbell's response to the Vatican, but also the birth of the Nuns of the Bus campaign, a movement inspired by outrage not at the Vatican, but at Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's draconian 2012 budget proposal.
Many of the documentary's scenes take place on the bus itself, capturing moments of elation, like the morning the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, as well as periods of sheer exhaustion as the sisters traversed the Midwest in the peak heat of summer.
The film also follows Schenk as she joins the public outcry over the doctrinal assessment, helping to organize the Nun Justice Project and joining Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate Conmy for the Women's Ordination Worldwide's "pink smoke" vigil in Rome during the 2013 conclave.
Early in their filming, Parrish committed to following Schenk to Rome for FutureChurch's annual pilgrimage to the archeological sites of women's leadership in the early church. The decision would be her greatest stroke of serendipity. As luck -- or the Spirit? -- would have it, the pilgrimage took place at the same time as the conclave. On their last night of filming, white smoke emerged from the Sistine Chapel's chimney. Parrish's camera captured Schenk's nervous anticipation as she stood in St. Peter's Square, waiting to hear the name of the new pontiff, and her tears of joyful hope as the new pope led everyone in prayer.
In its study of Hughes, "Radical Grace" turns into a meditation on the works of justice and mercy performed daily by thousands of women religious throughout the country. Near the film's conclusion, Hughes sits at a picnic table surrounded by nine African-American men from her program. She is retiring after 25 years of serving the formerly incarcerated, and it's her last day on the job.
"What do we do next, Sister Jean?" one man asked.
As she offers her parting wisdom and delightfully homespun advice, one cannot help but see the parallel between this moment and one of many table scenes in the Gospels, where Jesus offers healing words to the broken and forsaken who gathered around him.
For these three women, of course, the work of justice would have continued with or without the doctrinal assessment. But some of the richest sections of "Radical Grace" come in its exploration of their different responses to the Vatican's criticism.
For Campbell, the assessment presents an opportunity to harness the power of their raised profile. "We thought we were anonymous and unseen," she says. "This is a moment of opportunity. How do we use it for mission?"
Schenk reacts by taking even deeper risks in the ongoing struggle to promote women's leadership in the church. "If the radical notion that women are equal is a sin," Schenk says in response the Vatican's claim that women religious were promoting radical feminist themes, "then I'm guilty as charged."
For Hughes, it becomes a time of introspection. In some of the film's most honest moments, Hughes discerns her own role in speaking truth to religious authority. As a member of a canonical community, she questions her own connection to hierarchical power.
Though "Radical Grace" clearly admires its subjects, it resists the temptation to idolize women religious and allows viewers rare access to moral and spiritual quandaries that some sisters faced after the doctrinal assessment. Hughes struggles with guilt over whether sisters have been as committed to fighting for justice inside the Roman Catholic church as they have been outside the church's walls. The Nuns on the Bus, while prepping for a press conference, practice deflecting questions about reproductive health and same-sex marriage.
Even these women, whose work and integrity have inspired generations of disaffected Catholics, have had to make compromises.
The documentary does not shy away from the difficult reality that most religious communities are aging. Multiple scenes were shot in the nursing home wings of motherhouses and at Jubilee celebrations. Yet even in the face of declining vocations, Parrish is convinced that the sisters' penchant for connecting spirituality and social service work will bring inspiration and energy to new generations of justice-seekers.
"The sisters provide a model that, I think, could help social justice activists who are burnt out or seeking a spiritual aspect to their work," she says. "Regardless of whether you're Catholic or a nonbeliever, women religious show that you can approach service from a spiritual place in a way that is nourishing and sustaining for the work."
"Radical Grace" is currently in "rough-cut" form, and Parrish anticipates that it will have both a television broadcast and festival release. But she also plans to use the film as part of a grass-roots organizing campaign.
"We really want it to be a tool for building community," Parrish said. "We'd love for the film to provide inspiration to communities of faith in their own social justice work or help in church reform and renewal."
She also envisions "Radical Grace" as a bridge-builder between secular and faith-based justice organizations. "We hope it will create spaces for dialogue between organizations that are more antagonistic toward religion and progressive faith-based groups."
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the "Radical Grace" team is continuing to fundraise for the month of April on its website. Donors are offered a variety of thank-you gifts, ranging from T-shirts and messenger bags to access to an online meditation with Campbell.
Though Parrish is currently focused on fundraising goals and post-production edits, she hasn't lost sight of the documentary's deeper purpose.
"What I learned in the course of making this film is that social justice work becomes a spiritual practice when, in the act of serving, the boundary between self and other breaks down," she said. "It becomes communion. And what's so exciting to me is that we can all participate in this spirituality of social justice, regardless of our faith."
[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA). Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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