Sister Simone Campbell: The dangers of becoming a “celebrity nun”

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, appears with the Nuns on the Bus campaign in Washington Sept. 22, 2015. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review) Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, appears with the Nuns on the Bus campaign in Washington Sept. 22, 2015. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

I was asked if I had a favorite mistake. I think I am making it right now.

In my roles as the director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and the leader of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus campaign, two groups that advocate for social justice, I seek to influence lawmakers. Having influence means we can protect the safety net that so many Americans rely on; it means protecting immigrants caught up in an unjust system.

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It also means notoriety. In the name of advocating on behalf of people in poverty, I have sought publicity; I have gained notoriety. I go on cable news to make our case. I am quoted in The New York Times and The Washington Post. I leverage the popularity of Nuns on the Bus to push for change on Capitol Hill.

In the name of advocating on behalf of people in poverty, I have sought publicity; I have gained notoriety.

But while influence, connections and leverage are all vital in the world of politics, I fear they can be toxic in the spiritual life. I am afraid that I am holding on to my notoriety for notoriety’s sake. Because the truth is, I enjoy my engagement with reporters and being a “talking head” on cable news. I enjoy knowing members of the U.S. House and Senate. I enjoy being known as someone who appeared on The Colbert Report and being asked to recount the story. I am worried that my hunger for fame closes the door to the contemplative life that is at the core of the life I truly hunger for.

The contemplative life is the most treasured part of my existence. It is the gift that lets me know that we are all one, created at every moment by the loving divine. But my treasuring this knowledge makes me aware that my instincts in politics might not be the instincts needed for the contemplative life.

I am afraid that I am holding on to my notoriety for notoriety’s sake.

There are only two things that shut down the contemplative life, Gerald May writes in his seminal book Will and Spirit: fear and grasping. He cites the Gospel story of the Transfiguration as evidence. Jesus takes three apostles up the mountain with him. There they are joined by Moses and Elijah. Simon Peter (my patron) gets excited and suggests that they pitch tents and stay there. Then a cloud overshadows them and there is a voice saying, “This is my beloved.” Peter cowers in fear and the experience passes. Peter’s desire to stay there (grasping) and his fear are both reactions that shut down the experience of the divine.

In my political world, I am currently fearful that 30 million people will lose access to health care. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. At most, I am able to sit open-handed and yell at the Holy Spirit, “Come!” I can listen to the nudges of the Spirit toward action. I am frightened but trusting.

But I am worried that I am trying to “pitch my tent” in the midst of power and publicity. I feel quite like St. Paul in Romans: “For though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not: the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do” (9:18-19). I can give a lot of reasons for why I do what I do. I do it for the policies. I do it for the impact. I do it for those whose voices are not listened to in Washington. I do it for the adventure. I do it for the challenge. But none of this is worth shutting down the contemplative life because I enjoy the fame.

What I have learned, however, is that mistakes are not the end of the story. Rather, in my life mistakes have usually led to some new growth and insight—once I had the courage to look at them. So if this holding on to power or notoriety is a mistake, what can I learn from it? How do I learn to sit open-handed without grasping the desire to “pitch a tent” in the midst of the experiences I enjoy?

Here are a couple of hunches. First, simply admitting that I have a taste for the spotlight might be the first step toward loosening my grasp on this temptation. The second step is mustering the courage to trust in the Spirit’s enduring presence. If I have learned to sit open-handed in the face of my anguish about what will happen to our people because of the choices of members of Congress, the Spirit will certainly not leave me orphaned in the next step on this journey. I have said for many years that my spirituality is about “walking willing.” So my prayer becomes redemption in action:

Spirit of God, open my grasping hands.
Spirit of God, give me the courage I need.
Spirit of God, renew me and the face of the earth.

Now, want to hear about that time I was on The Colbert Report?

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Brian Hutching
1 month ago

Great article. Some real insight into the seduction and nature of fame. Keep up the good work.

Christopher Lochner
1 month ago

Ahh, Sister has the idea but, unfortunately, not in the manner she intended. Barack gave us Health Care coverage under duress whether it was wanted or affordable or not. Recall being told we will understand the Bill when we read it? Now Donald wants to undo everything with absolutely nothing as replacement. (Let them eat cake.) Medical costs are skyrocketing with many unable to afford a reasonable level of care. And Sister has a tear in her eye and the burden of being a celebrity on her shoulders. And they wonder why most living, breathing people are sick of the whole affair. It's like watching Game of Thrones only, in this case, it's our own tawdry royalty. The good intentions of a workable health care system must necessarily be backed by a very high level of reasonable thought and not the ongoing spectacle of a three ring circus (or gussied up bus). Perhaps I ask for far too much in modern times.

Sharon Boland
1 month ago

I cannot reconcile Sister Simone's penchant for the political spotlight, with prayer as an afterthought, while dressed in pearls and secular garb sans crucifix, with the Sisters of Life who worship Christ first and, with humility, subservience, and a crucifix visible on their habits, bring forth His light to those in need.

Humility appears to be missing from Sister Simone's repertoire...her celebrity precedes her prayer life.

Not so with the Sisters of Life.

Frank Bergen
1 month ago

I suspect it has been Simone's prayer life that has made her such a passionate advocate for justice, has made her willing to exile herself from a life of quiet contemplation in order to pursue lives of adequate health care, income, education, equality for her fellow Americans. The true cross is life-size, weighing down upon the shoulders, not worn as an ornament on a chain around the neck.

Sharon Boland
1 month ago

To walk in the shoes of Our Lord is to walk in humility subordinating the ego.

The Sisters of Life wear a crucifix on their habits, not as an ornament, but as a visible sign to the world that they serve Jesus Christ as they engage the world.

They are not instruments of the political class.

JOSEPH KOECHLER MR
1 month ago

Mother Theresa was celebrated for her work very publicly. She made the covers of international publications which I believe gave her work recognition and support.

I have been present at one of Sr. Simone's presentations and cane away with admiration for her work.

As we now face a potential disaster with the proposed Republican health care overhaul which will lead to death for many, I hope Sr. Simone's presence in the political arena will offer a chance to defeat this disaster.

I think of St. Paul preaching in the public arena of Athens. He wore no religious garb but was incredibly successful.

Thomas Moore
1 month ago

Your community has been doing this a long time seems like you know what life you joined. So you had to know that there would be this notoriety. And the hard part is how do you not allow you to be mislead?

Where does all your funding come from that allows you to have such a fancy bus and all the time away from your community to fight this battle. All these extras also seem like something that would add to the glamour feeling that you are having.

Are you an instrument of the Democrats? It sure seems like it.

Andrew Wolfe
1 month ago

Sister Simone, I appreciate your willingness to confess an interior examination about what you clearly perceive as an active apostolate, and its impact on the contemplative aspect of your religious vocation. In that regard, I'm sadly afraid that with this piece you are indeed making your favorite mistake. We have sacramental penance in private not just for discretion, but also that we not make public confession an ostentatious display of piety.

Your likening your political action to the Transfiguration should be another trouble indicator to you. Peter was in the company of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But rather than even once mentioning the Name of Jesus, you name-drop Stephen Colbert, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Are these Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to you? Or worse, do you labor, as if under an internal idolatry, the thought of yourself as that Moses, that one person leading 30 million through the Red Sea to health insurance?

The problem is that none of these idols is the one true and living God. And as you proceed in your political activities, it seems that you are calling not on God but on the world, the worldly power of the US government, to part the oceans for your Children of Israel.

Sister, we're all angry at God for one thing or another. For you, it may be that He allows millions to suffer hunger, poverty, or inadequate health coverage. For me, it might be the rape culture in which I have tried to safely raise five daughters. For others, it might be the seeming injustice of a Church run exclusively by men with so much labor done by women. We all feel like Martha some times. You are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary. I think it is time that you chose the better part: a life contemplating no abstractions, statistics, or faceless masses, but the living, breathing Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus.

At 70+ years of age, you know you may be summoned home at any time, and you will no longer have that fame, those political contacts, or even your hands and feet to care for the multitude you bear in your heart. Sooner or later, God will require you to trust Him with the 30 million. Before that comes, I think you should surrender the fame and notoriety because you know it is toxic, and return to the part of your life you most treasure: spiritual contemplation.

- Andrew Wolfe

Cecelia Aguallo
1 month ago

THANK YOU FOR pointing out the (WHAT I thought was obvious as I read the article) she has opted for the lesser of the two, n seems to justify that decision.
I was struck by the thin rationalizations. Where are we w/o Our Deliberate Conscious Contact With God? The Holy Spirit has the Best directions for us - something so easily forgotten in this world of the Ego Driven Self.
I do wonder if she would have been given the microphone and photo ops if it weren't for the Title, & the sacrificed Spiritual Life of her past?

Andrew Eppink
1 month ago

"Now, want to hear about that time I was on The Colbert Report?"

No.

CAROL STANTON
1 month ago

Some criticize Sr. Simone's dress and style; some did not like the habited Sister with the chainsaw. In their effort to make these women conform to a preferred image what the critics miss is the actual woman at work for others. Is publicity a slippery slope? You bet! Is being a public person in our media age fraught with danger? Ask Fr. James Martin. It takes spiritual maturity to navigate notoriety without beginning to believe you are your media image. Questioning oneself is step one in steering a true north while continuing to put one's life on the public line for others.

Susan Brandon
1 month ago

A good and brave reflection. As a fan and a supporter of your ministry, I say to Sr. - now really _is_ the time for that month’s retreat or that year off for renewal. You must trust your work to the Spirit and know that others can do what needs to be done - if they are not apparently present, they will emerge. It’s as important as health care.

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