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Ask not what Joan can do for you


When Mary Hembrow Synder asked me if I would participate in a Festschrift in honor of Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, I jumped at the chance.

How could I pass up an opportunity to celebrate a friend, longtime NCR columnist and board member? How could I turn down a request to draw well-deserved recognition to a prominent church leader?

I had one serious reservation, but I kept it to myself.

This would be no ordinary Festschrift -- no ordinary book of essays by several writers to honor a scholar on a special occasion. The subject would not be Chittister’s writing, but a topic she holds dear. “What do you think is the most important spiritual question of our time?” was the question two-dozen authors were asked to ponder.

Synder, director of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., where Chittister once studied, spent more than a year hounding her authors, insuring that they met their deadlines. Someone remarked it was like herding cats. After some deft editing the book appeared recently: Spiritual Questions for the Twenty-first Century: Essays in Honor of Joan D Chittister (Orbis Books, $18).

Chittister is special by any measure. She overcame polio, which put her in a wheelchair and iron lung just weeks after she entered the Benedictines at age 16. She became the first in her religious community to earn a doctorate (in communication theory and social psychology). At age 35 she became president of the largest federation of Benedictine women in the United States. Soon after, she was chosen president of the American Benedictine Prioresses and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Chittister’s peace and justice vision, always with an eye to supporting marginalized women, has transformed the once aging Erie Benedictines into a vibrant women’s religious community. Some 135 Benedictines are involved in ministries that explode the imagination.

Consider a few: an inner-city art house for disadvantaged youngsters, an environmental center for teen retreats, a job training center, apartments for elderly poor persons, the state’s largest on-site food distribution center and a soup kitchen. The community also runs a women’s advocacy program and a child development center, has settled war refugees and housed Pax Christi USA.

It supports artists and sells pottery, art, woodcarvings and needlepoint created by Benedictine community members. It has built hermitages in nearby woods for retreatants and opened a prayer center in the inner city. It has organized bankers, lawyers and doctors to read on their lunch breaks to young children.

The words “Erie Benedictines” have become synonymous with peacemaking. The community’s publishing efforts continue to grow. It prints books, journals and videotapes.

But back to Chittister -- and my reservation about the Festschrift.

At the end of the Festschrift gathering, Synder asked me to say a few words. I decided frankness was in order. At that moment my mind returned to a few days I spent with Chittister in Rome last year. I was with her when she addressed a gathering at a religious institute not far from the Vatican. More than 500 had come out to hear her, many of them leaders of religious congregations. Vatican officials were almost certainly in the crowd.

The topic of the talk had been publicized as “The Sins of Patriarchy.” This was a woman who was about to enter the proverbial lion’s den in the land of the lions.

Just moments before she entered the hall I looked into her eyes. What I saw at that moment was not only fear but also loneliness. Belief and passion and the experiences and wills of countless women had brought her to this point. But at that moment she looked alone and vulnerable. She asked for a prayer and a hug as she took a breath and prepared to face her audience.

What struck me deeply at that moment was not how courageous she was, but rather how ordinary. There she was struggling to muster the strength needed to meet the challenge. She began her talk biting courage into her lower lip.

I’ve thought back to that occasion as I have pondered what we ask so readily of our leaders, our heroes. I’ve wondered if in asking more of them we demand less of ourselves. Do we take other peoples’ “courage” for granted? (“What have you done for us lately, Joan?”) Leadership comes with its own burdens -- sometimes lonely burdens. But we ought not add to these burdens if we can avoid it.

As for the Festschrift, my concern had been that the honors, however deserved, could set Chittister even farther apart from the rest of us. And might add more to our expectations of her.

No, I would not have called off the project. I participated in it. She deserves praise for her work. However, it must be accompanied by greater discernment on our part.

Fortunately Chittister’s community understands the dynamics involved here. Hers is a nurturing community. As for the rest of us, we might consider how we can avoid inadvertently separating ourselves from our leaders. We might consider how we can better bond with them by supporting them. Healthy community life involves reciprocity. The Chittisters of our church need us, as we need them. Often even more.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001