Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, and Maria Shriver, former first lady of California, shared the stage of the D’Angelo Performing Arts Center as part of the Sister Joan Chittister Lecture Series.
The event, entitled “In Conversation,” discussed Chittister’s and Shriver’s respective careers, and their impact on issues facing women, such as Alzheimer’s disease and wage inequality. Chittister praised Shriver for her work in aiming to improve the situation of women facing these issues.
“She is an agent of social change,” said Chittister. “She’s done more than anyone to make a difference in the lives of struggling women.”
Shriver’s uncle, President John F. Kennedy, put together a commission to report on the status and well-being of women in America in 1960s, said Chittister. The commission produced annual reports regarding the issue, but had not issued policies to change the statistics.
“[Shriver] resolved to change the report numbers. She set out to affect change in the roles and lives of women, and she did,” Chittister said.
Shriver said that her family was always focused externally, which helped drive her to get involved in issues affecting the world.
“My mother would always ask, ‘What are you doing for the world today?’” said Shriver. “They constantly pushed me, and I learned that you have to do what moves you. Ask those questions. Follow your gut, your intuition.”
The heart must precede everything one does, Chittister said. It helps to identify the defining moments of one’s life in order to find an area upon which to make an impact.
Chittister related one such moment which occurred when she was studying for her graduate degree at Penn State University, when she became involved with the peace movement in the Vietnam War.
“I heard the beating of a drum outside my dorm room, and I saw rows of kids carrying candles. They were marching past, and saying something. It took me a bit to realize that they were reading the names of the war dead. They read them out loud for a week straight,” Chittister said.
The most poignant moment was when she learned that her 21-year-old cousin was killed in Vietnam one week before he was to be mustered out.
One of the issues frequently discussed throughout the event was caregiving, both the need for adults to care for aging and ill parents, but also the effects on the caregivers.
“We are becoming a caregiving nation,” said Shriver. “And yet those who take time to care for their sick parents can lose their jobs.”
Shriver said that she seeks to honor people who are doing work on the frontlines of humanity, such as parents and caregivers.
“We need to learn to honor the role of parenting,” said Shriver. “If you get your parenting right, that’s a game changer.”
The power of the individual came up in conversation between Shriver and Chittister.
Chittister asked what the meaning of power was to Shriver.
“What is power? Because people get in this mindset of ‘I’m just a…’ and they are convinced they have no power,” Chittister said.
Shriver said that she believes power is invisible and unseen.
“Power is presence. Power is knowing who you are,” said Shriver. “Everyone has the power to be an architect of change. Women sometimes come up to me and say I should get involved with this issue or that issue, and I tell them, ‘why don’t you do something?’ They seem shocked that I asked.”
Getting involved, however, Shriver and Chittister agreed, was not just saying something, but acting in a manner in accord with what you have said.
“People are talking about peace, and they’re pissed off. If you’re interested in peace, act that way,” Shriver said.
Near the end of the event, which had primarily been Chittister interviewing Shriver, Shriver turned the tables on Chittister and asked her about the meaning of power.
Chittister said that she had learned there are four types of power in relation to people.
“There’s power over, power with, power for, power given to someone,” said Chittister. “I’ve tried to give power to those who wouldn’t have it otherwise.”
Chittister said that her efforts to help others have led her to question every instance of authoritarianism in her life, even instances of authoritarianism within the Catholic Church.
“You love what it’s capable of, and that makes it hard to criticize, but we have to criticize it to help it change,” Chittister said.
Shriver asked Chittister about her opinions on the current pontiff, Pope Francis, and said that she was hopeful for the women to experience more equality within the Church under his reign.
Chittister said that she was skeptical of Shriver’s assessment.
“You have to remember that he’s an Argentinian male. But to give him credit, he has the capacity to convert when he digs into issues. If he digs into poverty, he’s going to find who’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. If he digs into militarism, he’ll see who’s dying defenseless. And if I get the chance to speak with him, I really want to help him see on this issue,” Chittister said.