Sister in the Spotlight

A Nun on the Busby Sister Simone Campbell

HarperOne. 224p $25.99

Simone Campbell, S.S.S., became semi-famous a few years ago, just when the self-identified progressive Catholic movement most needed an articulate, telegenic, activist nun who could “do” 21st-century-style media—especially television—and hold her own in a noisy, partisan realm where irony and mockery often act as news values.

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As readers learn in her forthright if somewhat dry memoir A Nun on the Bus, when the time comes to face down Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly (or Mike Huckabee or Neil Cavuto) or appear on “60 Minutes” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” or take a seat at the occasionally profane roundtable of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” or playfully pretend to debate the jingoistic blowhard played by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” Campbell draws courage from her closest ally: “When I am in the media spotlight,” she writes, “I face my anxiety by taking a deep breath and praying, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ I trust as always that I will not be left an orphan.”

The Holy Spirit, perhaps not a frequent presence in studio green rooms, once saw her through 33 media interviews over a period of five days, with hardly any professional on-camera training. The Holy Spirit was presumably with her when, during an appearance on Maher’s show earlier this year, she tried to reason with the conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza on raising the minimum wage. (After reading A Nun on the Bus, I watched that exchange while searching online for some of Campbell’s other notable TV appearances.)

“You’re kind of bleeding all over me right now,” D’Souza said in response to Campbell, with clear disdain for her story about a working mother living in a homeless shelter.

“You’ve got a nun flying atchya,” Maher gleefully observed.

“I’ve got a nun on a very high horse,” D’Souza complained.

When she gets going, Campbell can seem like cable TV’s own Joan of Arc. Left-leaning audiences thrill to hear a woman of faith tell it like it is, even on subjects as dogmatically fraught as abortion laws.

In Campbell’s case, the high horse turned out to be a chartered tour bus that she and several other nuns boarded for a three-week, 2,700-mile road trip in the summer of 2012 to raise awareness of how deep cuts to federal aid would affect the working poor. (One stop included the Wisconsin offices of Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic Republican who championed the cuts in his “Path to Prosperity” proposal as House Budget Committee chair.)

The nine-state journey of the sisters, dubbed the Nuns on the Bus—fully recounted here in a heartfelt travelogue—happened to coincide with growing outrage among U.S. Catholics that the nuns working hardest to help the poor and spread Gospel values were being pursued by the Vatican, which had launched an investigation into the women’s theological views.

“These nuns need to learn their place—which is at my desk!” Colbert (another Catholic) said, before bringing Campbell out for an appearance on his show. “You and your fellow nuns have clearly gone rogue.... And by the way, sister—where’s your outfit?”

The bus tour was a public relations coup for women religious. Though it didn’t do much to stop the Vatican investigation, it brought still more media attention to the causes Campbell and her sisters hold most dear, including the Affordable Care Act and immigration reform. By summer’s end, Campbell was invited to give a prime-time address during the Democratic National Convention, all of which she recalls here with genuine awe at the attention and, as anyone who knows nuns will recognize, a humble redirection of the spotlight.

The 69-year-old Campbell, a family law attorney who has been the executive director of the Washington-based NETWORK lobbying group since 2004, is hardly anyone’s idea of a loose cannon. In both her media appearances and in this book, she is most comfortable when sticking to her talking points, sometimes redundantly so—a skill she may have perfected in her decades of advocating on issues that lawmakers find it all too easy to ignore.

For all her willingness to step into the arena, the usual game of politics unnerves her. Campbell sees a link between partisanship and the television she nevertheless agrees to appear on: “Couch potatoes drive me crazy. So does the media coverage [of politics] that feeds off their viewing habits. I’m convinced that because people spend so much time watching sports, the media uses nothing but sports metaphors (or war metaphors—we spend a lot of time watching war on TV, too) to cover politics. We need new metaphors.... The problem with a sports metaphor is that it treats politics and democracy like a spectator sport. Political democracy requires engagement, not passivity.”

A Nun on the Bus isn’t quite the fully detailed, tell-all memoir some of us might have hoped to read from a semi-celebrity nun, but it is filled with lovely and often inspiring moments from Campbell’s spiritual journey, including the story of how and why she joined the Sisters of Social Services as a young woman in Southern California and what she thinks will become of her order and others as nuns continue to age.

Meditation helps Campbell shut out some of the clatter of politics, as does her delight in writing poetry (she includes some of her favorite poems at the book’s end). On a Zen retreat in Tucson several years ago, she writes, she came to an awareness that “God is the ‘hum’ that holds all creation together at every moment of existence. God is intimately connected and never separate. God IS us (but we are not God).… We are not separate, we are not orphaned. My entire spiritual landscape was utterly altered and that was a gift.”

That universal hum pointed her toward the constant buzz of television. You can see real joy on her face when she explains her and her sisters’ work to Colbert: “We work every day to live as Jesus did, in relationship with people at the margin of our society.”

“That’s a cheap applause line, Jesus,” Colbert faux-jeered. “You can throw Jesus into anything and people are going to applaud.”

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