By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 17, 2016
ATLANTA—Although she doesn’t keep a daily journal, when it comes to important events Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, takes copious notes.
Pope Francis’ address to America’s senators and representatives in Congress last September was one of those important occasions.
Sister Simone, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, presented “Pope Francis’ Challenge to Our Nation: Create a Politics of Inclusion” to a capacity crowd at Emory University March 2.
The Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory hosted the program as part of its major Catholic speaker series.
An attorney, poet and lobbyist, Sister Simone looked back at the historic address of the pope in Washington, D.C. In an interview prior to her Emory talk, Sister Simone leafed through her pages of handwritten notes on the address.
She called Pope Francis a “huge” inspiration to her and a confirmation in her work at Network, lobbying on issues of immigration reform, poverty, and building peace. She was able to attend the pope’s talk.
“I was in Congress when he addressed Congress,” she said.
To have Pope Francis speak about the duty to build bridges and “to help all men and women in any possible way to do the same” was to be seen and heard, she said. It assuaged loneliness she has felt in her work.
“Our theme for the longest time has been bridging the divides,” she said about Network. “It’s such joy. It’s a great feeling. I didn’t know how hungry I was personally for that nourishment, and you know when things are tough, I’m a very determined person. But in that determination, it gets lonely.”
Sister Simone found the time leading up to the papal address an interesting experience as she was seated in the front row of the House chamber next to Sen. John McCain’s wife, Cindy.
“We got to talking about how Sen. McCain is so discouraged because he hasn’t been able to get immigration reform. I felt like because of Pope Francis, there was a way in which we could have that conversation that bridged divides,” she recalled.
Contrary to blogosphere reports, she did not have the opportunity to meet Pope Francis. Typically an escorting committee will guide a speaker addressing a joint session of Congress to the front podium.
“Not Pope Francis,” said Sister Simone. “Pope Francis walks down by himself.”
She said the imagery of the moment was striking as the pope was dressed in all white and situated in front of the dark wood paneling of the chambers where the national motto is inscribed.
“It was visually so powerful and then to see ‘In God We Trust.’ That was very dear,” she said.
Both Republicans and Democrats had agreed to no partisan reaction to elements of the speech, but when Pope Francis spoke of his papacy being focused on abolition of the death penalty worldwide, there was a palpable reaction.
“It was like there was this wind in the room,” she said.
As those seated next to her strained to hear the pope’s words, she found putting them to paper was useful.
“It was very hard to hear him in the chambers so it helped me to stay focused because he was so soft-spoken,” she said.
Talk about civil obligations, not rights
In the evening program at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory, Sister Simone said she would speak about Pope Francis’ challenge as it relates to a variety of issues before Americans, including poverty.
“My intention is to lift up the income disparities and then talk about how do we make changes,” she said.
To give a picture of the level of disparities, Sister Simone uses a human bar graph where participants move forward or backward depending on their income level.
The top 1 percent or wealthiest are “lonely” and so far removed from the others they don’t have a true picture of what others face, she said.
The pope says “no” to an economy of exclusion, said Sister Simone. His challenge to Congress was to change the direction of the nation.
“Policies have gotten us into this mess. Policies can get us out,” she said.
It’s important to talk about what benefits the 100 percent, not a fraction, she said.
“We’ve got this zero-sum idea that if you benefit, then I lose, and that’s wrong,” she said. “We’ve got this same attitude toward our rights. If you have your rights, then I don’t have mine.”
Sister Simone said this attitude about rights has created a racial divide in America. She theorized that the next step, in keeping with Catholic social teaching, is promoting “civil obligation.”
Rather than pursuing the rights of “me and mine,” she said, “civil obligation is we all have to come to the table.”
“What we have to do is not just talk about civil rights, but also about civil obligations,” she said.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote about the whole being greater than the parts.
“If you are missing a part, you can’t build peace,” said Sister Simone.
Civil obligation means everyone takes part in the debate, the learning process, and exercises the right to vote.
“The very essence of democracy is also at the heart of our faith: that in community there’s room for everyone,” she said. “No one is left out of our care.”
In penning a Palm Sunday reflection for this year, Sister Simone thought about how Jesus cared for the suffering, even on the path to the cross.
“That’s what we are called to do,” she said.
Four virtues for the 21st century
Network, where she has been the executive director since 2004, held its annual “Nuns on the Bus” tour in the two weeks prior to the pope’s visit to the United States.
Sister Simone said she finds that worry is often the most common theme she hears while on the road.
“And Jesus said, ‘Fear not’,” she said.
The bus tour of several cities enables Sister Simone to see what others are doing to serve and learn about their challenges, ranging from experiencing racism to illness.
“It breaks your heart, and then you can shine a light on it,” she said.
Network’s latest emphasis has been promoting voter turnout. If voters pledge or commit to vote, they get to sign the side of the shrink-wrapped bus.
Dr. Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center, said 250 people attended the seventh annual major Catholic speaker program.
Sister Simone also joined a group of graduate students for lunch and had the opportunity to look at a collection of projects by Catholic students on social justice.
“We’re very fortunate that a lot of our major Catholic speakers come and take the time to meet with students and have those conversations, which are really rich,” said Thompson. “It’s always fascinating to see what they are interested in.”
Sister Simone closed the program with her “Four Virtues for the 21st Century.”
The first virtue is to have a modicum of joy.
“Too often, we get grim on this stuff,” she said.
The second virtue is to have holy curiosity; that’s when we want to learn or know about one another. “You can’t have holy curiosity and be afraid at the same time,” she said.
The third virtue is to practice sacred gossip. This means sharing what you learn so others can help.
And the fourth virtue is to do your part.
“We know in the faith we are one body. So what’s your part in the body of Christ? Do your part,” she said.
Sister Simone admitted that her part is sometimes to be the “stomach acid” or the metabolic agent.
The work of lobbying is about making personal connections and building on shared experiences to form frameworks for discussion of issues.
“The way we lobby always has a pastoral piece to it,” she said.
Sister Simone sometimes speaks to law school students about how much she enjoys the law, as well as its challenges.
“The challenge is not to be seduced by the law but to know law is a tool, and as a tool it is to be used for mission. What you have to do is be clear about your mission,” she said. “I just find it fun.”