Rebecca Parrish Credit: JENNIFER ANGELORO

When progressive Catholic nuns, eager to protest federal cuts in social spending, staged three separate “Nuns on the Bus” tours during the 2012 presidential race, they were greeted in Marietta, Ohio, by Tea Party protesters hoisting such placards as “Bums on the Bus” and “Romney-Ryan Yes, Fake Nuns No.” The “fake nuns” taunt referred indirectly to a Vatican statement, issued six months earlier, that had censured the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American nuns, for “serious doctrinal problems” in its positions on homosexuality and women priests, and for its “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

For others who caught the bus tour, the nuns were real enough. “They are the church as far as I can see,” observes one woman in Rebecca Parrish’s new documentary Radical Grace, which screens at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Radical Grace unfolds during a six-year period when the Vatican mounted two overlapping investigations into the activities and teachings of American nuns. Parrish profiles three nuns deeply involved in social justice work: Jean Hughes of Chicago, who helps ex-convicts get back on their feet as part of Saint Leonard’s Ministries; Chris Schenk of Cleveland, whose organization FutureChurch promotes gender equality in the clergy; and Simone Campbell of Washington, D.C., whose lobbying organization Network sponsored the bus tour.

Whether these activist women are “real” Catholics is a question the movie leaves open, but Parrish, who lives and works in the South Loop, thinks they’re more connected to real life than some of their male superiors in the church hierarchy. “The majority of the ministry they do is with people who are the most marginalized, so they have exposure to real people and real people’s needs and how things actually work,” she says. “I think a lot of the clerics in the church are more in a world of theory and ideology, whereas the sisters are boots on the ground.”

Parrish grew up in Atlanta and then suburban San Francisco, where she developed an interest in documentary photography. After moving to Chicago in 2007, she took classes at Chicago Filmmakers and served as an intern at Kartemquin Films; to learn her craft, she made short promotional videos for nonprofit groups. Radical Grace, her first feature, grew out of her interest in the socially engaged Buddhism of Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, specifically “how social justice work can be approached as a spiritual practice. . . . There’s a lot of anger, often, around the issues that you’re working on. That’s good, but that can’t be all.” The idea that activism could be part of bettering oneself spiritually led her naturally enough to the Catholic sisterhood, and she began interviewing nuns across the country.

Chris Schenk in Radical Grace

Parrish had gotten most of her ideas about nuns from movies such as The Blues Brothers and Sister Act, which didn’t prepare her for the plain-speaking Hughes, an Adrian Dominican with a lifetime of teaching and counseling experience. (She died in January at age 76.) “Jean exploded all my stereotypes, and I just loved her, adored her,” recalls Parrish. Counseling a group of parolees in the documentary, Hughes urges them to find good women who will help them stay out of trouble: “If she needs diamonds, drop her!” Parrish says she was struck by how frankly Hughes spoke of her conflicts with the Vatican; at one point in the movie she calls the 2012 censure “a denial of the divine in us.” Like the other three women Parrish settled on as her main characters, Hughes is no simple do-gooder but a conscientious woman on an uncharted spiritual journey.

However reluctant the sisters may have been to open up about controversial subjects, they were nowhere near as uncooperative as the Catholic clergy. Parrish says she approached the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide a high-ranking spokesperson for the movie, to no avail. Finally she obtained footage of a talking-head interview with Thomas Paprocki, bishop of the Springfield diocese, that was shot for another documentary but never used. “The sisters say that religious life is changing and evolving,” he remarks in the movie, “but I think the question then is, what are the limits of that? How far can they push that? The question is, are you still religious? Are you still nuns? Are you still Christian?” In another clip, Paprocki shrugs off the idea of women clergy, pointing out that Jesus chose only men to be his apostles.

Hughes’s health had been seesawing back and forth throughout the production of Radical Grace, but Parrish was still shocked when the aging sister died of complications from a lung infection. Later scenes in the movie reveal Hughes as a woman still deeply troubled by the Catholic patriarchy. “I find myself having conversations with God about the institutional church,” she confesses. “It was almost like God said to me, ‘Why don’t you walk away?'” At the same time, she considers her illness an opportunity, “a renewal for me of who I want to be till the end.” Hughes may not have been a real nun, or even a real Catholic, but Radical Grace leaves no doubt that she was a real disciple.  v