MANY KNOW Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister as a prophetic spiritual writer and an engaging speaker; others call to mind her sister-leadership, her feminism, and her defiance of the Vatican. What Tom Roberts’ startling new biography uncovers, with the full cooperation of Sister Joan, are the horrors of a childhood filled with violence and poverty and the vivid details of her growth as a spokesperson for women’s equality in the Catholic Church.
The book’s three parts each deal with a phase in Chittister’s spiritual growth. The early years, with harrowing accounts of protecting her mother from a brutal and alcoholic stepfather and entering an Erie Benedictine community still steeped in old-world traditions, conclude with Chittister receiving her Ph.D. from Penn State, a first for her order.
Part two chronicles the tumultuous middle years when religious communities everywhere were adapting to a radically changing world. Chittister grew in critical consciousness about the role of women in the church and served three terms as prioress of her order, helping her community to move from its traditional vocation of teaching to serving a changing neighborhood. Their projects, under the umbrella term of peacemaking, took the form of urban gardens, art workshops, afterschool programs, peace centers, houses of hospitality, and soup kitchens, and eventually to the formation of online communities of monastic spirituality. For those who haven’t read Chittister’s own writing on these years, Roberts could have included more information on pre-Vatican II convent life here.
Part three finds Chittister moving beyond the community of U.S. sisters to worldwide leadership, ably assisted by her lifelong friend Sister Maureen Tobin. Chittister traveled on peacemaking journeys to Palestine and Israel, worked in Haiti and the Philippines, and took part in several worldwide conferences, including the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing and an ecumenical conference in Nairobi. All this while still plagued by the ravages of childhood polio!
In 2001, Chittister was invited to speak at the first international conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, to be held in in Dublin. Vatican officials ordered her prioress, the late Christine Vladimiroff, to “forbid and prohibit” Chittister’s participation. Roberts details the courage of Vladimiroff and the community as they collectively resisted the Vatican in support of Chittister.
When Chittister addressed the Dublin conference about discipleship, she asked “What do the people really need?” answering that “they need the sacred, not the sexist ... more prophets of equality, not more pretenders to a priesthood of male privilege. They need discipleship, not canonical decrees.” In her assertion that Christian discipleship will, sooner or later, “tumble a person from the banquet tables ... to the most suspect margins of both church and society,” she foreshadowed some of Pope Francis’ wisdom. She begged that the question of women as priests be seriously considered in papal circles, lamenting that it had not yet happened. (It still has not yet happened.)