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Why Can’t I Be You: Sister Simone Campbell

The Pope called her a “radical feminist” (he didn’t mean it as a compliment). We call her a hero.

Did you think that the sacrifices—like not having a family, the vow of poverty—keep people from pursuing the spiritual life?

But see, there’s a whole ’nother set of things that we take for granted because we’re religious, which is that we have this amazing capacity to be of service, to love folks. My law partners recognized that I was freer to serve, and more generous with my clients in terms of responding to their needs, because I didn’t have these other constraints. So while things like having a family are gifts, they are also constraints.

Is the knowledge that the spiritual life would offer those other gifts something that you knew intuitively when you were growing up, when you made the decision to be a nun? Or did you realize it as you went along?

I think I realized it as it went along, because I only thought of the gift of service and it didn’t feel like I was giving something up. And actually it hasn’t felt like I gave anything up. It’s a very enriching life.

So after you practiced law for 18 years, you were elected to be the head of the SSS.

That meant I was responsible for helping my sisters in the U.S., Mexico, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It was some very international, multicultural work, very hard, very challenging, because my sisters are all really strong, independent women and yet we try to live this communal life, and it’s a big but wonderful challenge. I did that for five years, then I started doing state advocacy in California. One of the members of my community had started an organization called JERICHO that serves the needs of low-income people in California. I did that for two years and then in 2004 I got recruited to come to NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby where I still work.

And now you have a national platform. Is that something you were looking for?

The fact is, the reason we have this platform is because we were reprimanded by the Vatican in April and we got a lot of press about it. But we are never just about attracting attention to ourselves, it’s always about mission. So we thought about how to use this moment to serve the needs of people in poverty, and to lift folks up. This is why we do this work. The result was this amazing thing called Nuns on the Bus, which took off in a way none of us expected. It’s stunning. I am still stunned.

You organized Nuns on the Bus to help raise awareness about how Paul Ryan’s budget plan would affect the poor and vulnerable in our country. What happens now that the election is over but the budget is far from resolved?

We thought we put the bus to bed after this summer, but sisters all over the country keep doing buses and inviting me along. We’ve found that sisters everywhere want to speak out—so after the first of the year we’re going to a new Nuns on the Bus trip to lobby governors to expand Medicaid 133%, so that low-income people can have health care. And then we’re going to keep pushing back on the Ryan budget. We have a lot of work to do with that.

Is it normal for people in your community to do so much explicit lobbying?

NETWORK was founded 40 years ago, so we’ve been doing this but we’ve never had this much publicity. But we have a long track record, and our message is really trusted on Capital Hill. When we say something, people listen. Which is fabulous. The other thing is that my own religious community, the SSS, was founded in 1943 in Budapest, Hungary; our foundress was the first woman in the Hungarian Parliament, so my community has always had political roots. That’s a little unusual, for a religious community, but that’s who we are.

Does that policy focus put you at odds with the other communities of sisters?

Oh, heavens, no. People join NETWORK because they share our perspective. We don’t represent the institution of the church—our bishops do that. So we don’t have the stress that those denominations have of trying to bridge those issues. It’s a different reality for us.

It seems like there is a pretty extreme division in the religious community on the question of policy and values, illustrated most recently by Vatican’s rebuke of “radical feminist nuns” and the bishops in the U.S. coming out against Obamacare because of their fear that federal money would go towards abortions (even though the Hyde Amendment makes that impossible). What would you say to someone who is considering entering a religious community but doesn’t want to compromise on what they believe, for example in regards to reproductive health or gay rights? Do you think you can stay religiously faithful while also staying true to yourself?

I think it goes back to what I see as the essence of faith and religious life, which is prayer, and deep listening, and then trusting that we’re not left orphans. For me the religious life is about deep listening to the needs around us. The question becomes: Am I responding in generosity? Am I responding in selfishness? Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me? That builds me up? That is respectful of who I am? All of those questions are at the heart of how we discern the best steps forward.

I think the hard part of being young is that you’re mostly looking forward, and whenever you look forward, you can’t see—it’s dark. Now that I’m a little bit older I can look back and see, Oh, my life looks like a straight line, it’s pretty impressive. But looking forward, oh man, I was always really confuse about where was I going, what was I doing, what was happening. That’s just the nature of living. Everybody struggles with how to make meaning out of formal law, and you have to come to your own place of what makes sense. It’s that coming to consciousness that’s so important. And always thinking deeply and trying to be do the best for the community. My experience is if I do the best for my community than I also do the best for myself.

Would you encourage young women to become nuns, to join the community?

To join this unusual crowd? Absolutely. But I think because life has changed a bit, I would say do it at a later age than I did. But it is such a wonderfully rich and rewarding life, how could I possibly not encourage people to do it? It’s fabulous. It’s challenging, it’s not dull, it’s always full of surprises. And you cannot predict what we call the holy spirit—some people call it providence, some people call it grace—is going to do with your gifts. I never thought in a million years that I’d be talking to you or talking to anyone else about this stuff!

Or that you’d be speaking at the Democratic National Convention?

Yeah, or do The Colbert Report, or, my gosh, there are so many things that I’m disbelieving about. But what a gift, what a fabulous gift and opportunity.

It’s totally amazing. Part of me is just like, This is real? In order to stay grounded, though, you have to remember two things: to not be afraid, because whenever you’re afraid you kind of pull up the drawbridge and protect yourself; and to not hold on—don’t hold on to the good things either—but let the new come. So I sit open-handed to welcome the new. And my hands are kind of full right now, it’s pretty amazing.

Have you thought about how you want to use your newfound power?

We’re going to keep listening to what the needs of the people are, and be faithful. I don’t know if you know the Christian scripture story about Jesus and the loaves and the fish: they are out in the countryside and they’ve got all these people out there. The Apostles say, send someone back to town to get food and stuff, and Jesus says, well what have you got? They find five loaves and two fish, but the apostles whine, “What’s this among so many?” But what happens is that Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it and gives it out and there’s enough. I have this poem that I wrote—I do poetry occasionally—that’s called “Loaves and Fish” and the ending part is “The 2000-year-old evernew response is this: blessed and broken you are enough.” Then it goes on: “I savor the blessed, cower at the broken, and pray to be enough.” And this is what I do. ♦


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  • kirsten December 20th, 2012 8:05 PM

    she is so amazing.

  • MaryPat December 20th, 2012 8:31 PM

    This is so inspirational!

    I grew up Catholic, and go to college in a monastic setting, and I have never thought of nuns as anything other than repressed women who prayed to express their devotion to God. Sister Simone Campbell totally breaks this stereotype! I’m so amazed to see a woman do so much through the Church, rather than be inhibited by it.

    Thank you so much!

  • katie December 20th, 2012 8:31 PM

    i love her so much

  • Killjoy December 20th, 2012 9:10 PM

    Wow this is amazing!

  • Abby December 20th, 2012 9:40 PM

    I’m not religious… but this makes me want to be. If we had more wonderful people like this in the world, it would be a better place. Thank you, Sister, for trying to make it that way. I have an incredibly high level of respect for people like you. Thank you for what you do… You’re amazing.

  • I.ila December 20th, 2012 10:04 PM

    I saw part of a documentary about women rights activists, and she was part of it. She is so inspirational!

  • tasmia December 21st, 2012 12:20 AM

    Nuns on the bus! Awesome name. c: And of course, the nun is awesome too.

  • soretudaaa December 21st, 2012 6:43 AM

    I totally didn’t know who she was and now I love her! When people think of Catholics, I’d rather have them think of us this way. I think she represents very accurately what Jesus was REALLY all about.

  • Emma S. December 21st, 2012 8:16 AM

    Wow wow wow, Rose! She is incredible. Thank you for doing this!

  • wallflower152 December 21st, 2012 11:58 AM

    I have a great respect for people who dedicate their lives to their religion and their community. I think it is a beautiful thing to give up the glamour of this world to live a life of poverty and service. I liked what Sister Simone said “it didn’t feel like I was giving something up. And actually it hasn’t felt like I gave anything up. It’s a very enriching life.” I’d never thought of it this way, very enlightening! I’d always thought religious people gave up things in this world because they focus on the next life.

    I knew a nun, Mother Angela, who lived to be 106 years old. My Mamaw went to a Catholic school and Mother Angela was her teacher and Mamaw thought (still thinks) so highly of her that they kept in touch. She was born in 1894 in Mexico and in her teens her boyfriend became very very sick and she promised God that if he survived she would become a nun. He survived and she became a nun but of course that meant they couldn’t be together. That story has always stuck with me, a selfless thing to do. I remember visiting Mother Angela at the convent where she lived in San Antonio. She died when I was only 10 years old, I wish I could’ve REALLY talked to her.

  • HeartPlant December 21st, 2012 1:28 PM

    Wow, that’s amazing. It’s so good to see people who are inspired to help others and love people. Long may Sister Simone Campbell be with us, and long may Rookie continue to encourage us.

  • mdoodle13 December 21st, 2012 2:54 PM

    This is fantastic! My dream as a young girl was to become a nun!

  • raftingstarlit December 21st, 2012 3:12 PM

    I just want to thank Rookie for introducing me to such an inspirational person..it’s amazing how you manage to present us such a wide view on religion, faith, in order to help us to find our own.

  • miss_smog December 21st, 2012 6:13 PM

    Awesome piece! Sister Simone has a lot of killer YouTube clips :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlLUahEwKGc

  • catdeneuve December 21st, 2012 10:56 PM

    sister simone is such an inspiration, thank you for posting this.

  • Lola December 23rd, 2012 9:24 PM

    thank you for this, rose! nuns are my heroes.

  • llamalina May 9th, 2013 10:08 PM

    This interview is awesome. As an atheist who was raised Catholic, it always comforts me to be reminded of the good sides of religion; especially the one that I grew up in. Sister Campbell is truly inspiring.