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Tribute to a ‘dangerous’ gifted nun  

13 May 2016

Lavinia Byrne reads a biography of Sister Joan Chittister

Courtesy of the Benedictine sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania

Living St Benedict’s Rule: Joan Chittister

Living St Benedict’s Rule: Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister: Her journey from certainty to faith
Tom Roberts
Orbis Book £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10


IN HER own context, Joan Chittister is notorious. A North American religious sister; Benedictine nun; prolific author; Vatican-baiter; fearless advocate; friend of the poor, and also the great and the good; to those who know her, she is a woman of instant and wide appeal. To those who do not, she is a dangerous liberal and someone to be feared.

Both these views fail to do justice to her true legacy: she should be remembered as the author of exceptional commentaries on the Rule of St Benedict. These she has written as an insider, as someone who lives the Rule; and, in a curious way, the author of this rather star-struck biography gets this bit right. He is good at the mature Chittister.

Tom Roberts has done his spadework. In a series of recorded interviews, he captures the narrative in detail. So he traces the evolution of the young Joan’s vocation: the bereaved mother who had her child seven months after marrying an Irishman who then died of TB; the drunken stepfather; patchy education; entry into the community as a girl of 17, and so on. These pages read like a film script. The tragic heroine goes on to get polio, and to shine by excelling both as a student and then as a young teacher. So far, so very North American.

A relief then when historical facts clash with the celluloid. The Second Vatican Council put an end to the fantasy by inviting sisters to inhabit the real world. At university, Chittister met its secular equivalents: protests against the Vietnam War and the rise of feminism. Her intelligence was recognised, too, and she became the first member of her community to receive a doctorate. Her field of study? Theories of change and “perception and the effects of perception of messages on groups, on attitudes, on formation”.

Small wonder, then, that she became something of a “change guru” or an expert in aggiornamento, not simply for the Benedictine communities in the United States, but for all sisters grouped in the progressive Leadership Conference of Women Religious there. Small wonder, too, that she burst into print. As a social scientist, she had much to offer, trying to effect reconciliation between progressive and conservative wings of the Church and its religious.

Between 1977 and 1998, Chittister spoke in 15 countries and wrote 18 books and five pamphlets. She was Von Hügel lecturer and elected fellow at the University of Cambridge for a year, and travelled extensively. She was also Prioress of her own community of Erie Benedictines. Then, in 1983, her book Women, Ministry and the Church was published, and the die was cast: she “took a position” regarding the ordination of women: namely, she would claim she was “looking for a discussion in the church”. A Vatican investigation followed, and her community closed ranks around her. As she herself wrote, “You simply cannot dismiss the power and presence of the women’s movement in the church.” Aged 80, she remains a solid fixture of that presence.

Despite the promise that his book might examine her inner journey “from certainty to faith”, this account of events in the outer world makes a fitting tribute to her gifts.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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