EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. This interview features author, columnist, television host and former presidential speechwriter Colleen Carroll Campbell, who spoke with CV’s Stephen Kokx about her new book My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir. We hope you find this a helpful addition to our ongoing conversation about how to best live out our Catholic faith in the modern world.
Motherhood for some is seen as an obstacle to a meaningful life. Time spent changing diapers and feeding ungrateful children could be better spent being a lawyer or advocating for pro-choice initiatives. That’s not how Colleen Carroll Campbell sees it.
Her latest book My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir takes you on a 15-year journey that begins at Marquette University and continues to the White House, a visit to the Vatican with then-Pope Benedict XVI, and motherhood itself.
Written in a straightforward yet gentle manner, My Sisters the Saints illustrates how Colleen drew inspiration from the likes of Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Faustina of Poland and Edith Stein of Germany during the most challenging years of her life.
My Sisters the Saints is a touching, accessible, and heart-stirring memoir Catholics of all stripes will enjoy, as it reminds us about the importance and power of prayer and how we must trust in God even when we might not want to. I give it my full endorsement.
Polls show many young adults are lukewarm about the Church hierarchy. Though you never apostatized from the Catholic faith when you were in college, it was challenging for you to be as devout as you once were. Eventually you turned to Teresa of Avila for spiritual guidance. What are some ways we can reach out to those who are not practicing their Catholic faith, in particular young adults?
Much of my first book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola, 2002), is devoted to answering this question, by telling the stories of hundreds of young adults who found their way back to an enthusiastic practice of their faith. In the case of my own journey, which I share in My Sisters the Saints, women saints were my way back. Their lives, their writings, their example of living holiness despite their own flaws and worldly obstacles – all of this resonated with me as a young woman searching for flesh-and-blood models of Christian discipleship. Like many young people, I was not as interested in arguments and proofs for God as in stories of those whose lives had been transformed by Him.
Not long ago there was an essay published in The New York Times on the end of courtship. You make a point in My Sisters the Saints to mention the various failed relationships you had and how you met your husband John. What effect has the hookup culture and feminist mindset had on society, especially when it comes to how we perceive marriage and children?
The decline of courtship and rise of the hook-up culture certainly hasn’t benefited women. I don’t think it’s done favors for either sex, but women have particularly borne the brunt of the low expectations and fear of commitment it encourages. Studies consistently show that most young men and women still dream of having happy, lifelong marriages, complete with children. But our culture gives them almost no encouragement or tools to realize that dream. Instead, young people – and especially young women – are admonished not to even think about marriage and children until they have earned every degree, hit every career benchmark, sown every last wild oat, paid off every college loan. So a tension develops between a young woman’s innate desire for lasting love and motherhood and her culturally conditioned view that she should distrust those desires, lest they lead to her oppression. It’s a serious problem that Catholic parents, educators and pastors need to address in a more intentional way.
You mention that your time spent as a speechwriter in the Bush White House was not easy. That it was a sort of old boys’ club and that you never “encountered such chauvinism on the job before.” What words of wisdom do you have for women who work in similar environments?
First, I should make clear what I did in the book: that I loved working directly with President George W. Bush and the chauvinism I encountered was not from him. As for working in an old boys’ club, that’s still a reality for some women today – especially in rarefied environments like some corners of the White House – and sadly, it’s sometimes even more pronounced in conservative circles. Not always, but sometimes. My advice for women who face chauvinism on the job would be to cultivate camaraderie with female coworkers instead of regarding them as rivals; charitably but firmly assert your ideas and principles when it counts, even if doing so ruffles a few feathers; and remember that if God has called you to use your gifts for Him in the public square, you have an obligation to do just that – whether or not the old boys’ club approves.
You are not shy about describing the ups and downs of your pregnancy. Was it your intention to show women that becoming a mom is not something they should fear, but embrace? Also, do you think giving birth brought you closer to your own mom, who was not mentioned a whole lot in the book?
The personal story that I tell in My Sisters the Saints focuses heavily on a few major themes that were dominant in my life during that 15-year time period. Chief among them were my struggles with infertility and with my father’s descent into dementia. As a result, I spent a lot more time in the book talking about my father than my mother, because his Alzheimer’s disease – and the inspiring way he coped with it – figured so prominently in my own spiritual journey. As for my intentions in sharing my struggles with infertility and motherhood, I did not aim to make motherhood look easier or harder. I just wanted the book to be real. I wanted to tell my story as honestly and transparently as I could because that’s where I had found the most grace and where I figured readers would find the most grace: in the truth, in life as it really happened, apart from my expectations or pretensions to perfection and control.
The book is titled My Sisters The Saints but you devote a large portion of it to your relationship with your father, whose Alzheimer’s disease progressively worsened over time. If you could, speak more about that relationship and the special bond daughters have with their fathers. Finally, are there any male saints or popes you feel a strong connection with?
First, to answer your question about popes and male saints: I have many favorites. Blessed John Paul II and his teachings figure very prominently in this book and in my own spiritual journey. I have particular affection for St. Joseph, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, and St. John the Evangelist. And there are many others, too – new ones I discover and grow to love every year.
As for my father, he was truly a beacon to me in the midst of his suffering. The heroic way he faced his greatest trial – the result of a lifetime of prayer and leaning on God amid smaller trials – enriched me beyond measure. He and my mother introduced me to many of the saints I profile in My Sisters the Saints, and they had great devotion to the saints themselves. Dad loved Scripture and gave my brother and me a solid grounding in the fundamentals of our Catholic faith. But in the end, my father taught me his greatest lessons not in word but in deed, by truly living amid Alzheimer’s his favorite passage from Romans: “Everything works together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28) That wasn’t always easy to believe as I watched the disease ravage his mind and body. But Dad believed, and his luminous faith helped me believe, too.
As a bonus question, I thought I would ask Colleen about the resignation of Pope Benedict.
In 2008, you were one of 250 female delegates worldwide chosen to attend a three-day Vatican Congress at the Apostolic Palace in Rome on the role of women in the Church and society. You later wrote about how Pope Benedict addressed the conference on the threats to women’s dignity. Looking back over his eight-year reign, what do you think his legacy will be, especially in regards to women in the Church?
Colleen with then-Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican
Pope Benedict XVI has had a busy and fruitful eight years in the Chair of Peter. He will be remembered as a brilliant and humble teacher of the faith and as a surprisingly effective evangelist on the world stage. His effectiveness derived not from a dramatic stage presence but from an unusual gift for offering fresh new insights on ancient Christian truth. By frequently connecting contemporary challenges to the eternal wisdom of Christ and His Church, Benedict proved a winsome witness to faith in a skeptical age.
With regard to women, Benedict built on the solid foundation of his predecessor by underlining the crucial role that women play in the Church and public life as well as the home. He has repeatedly emphasized both the beauty of a woman’s distinctively feminine outlook and gifts and the importance of ensuring that, as he put it in his 2008 address to the Vatican congress on women, “it be … possible for the woman to cooperate in the building-up of society” using her “feminine genius.”
Benedict has underscored this message with a strong focus on women saints. Over the past two years, the pope devoted nearly 20 Wednesday audiences to singing the praises of the great women saints and explaining how their experiences and insights can still speak to us today. He inaugurated the Year of Faith last fall by canonizing four new women saints and naming a new woman Doctor of the Church, German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Benedict’s attention to the Church’s holy women of ages past, and his outspoken support for the role that women play in renewing the Church and culture today, make his legacy one for which women can be grateful.