Discerning with Jo Piazza

In this episode, we present Jo Piazza. Writer and journalist whose life was greatly impacted by her experiences with women religious. After traveling with Sister Simone Campbell, S.S.S. and the Nuns on the Bus she continued to engage and learn more, eventually writing the book If Nuns Ruled the World. She attended the NCSW 2015 discern. Conference to speak about her experiences and graciously provided some extra time for a one-on-one interview.

Jo Piazza:
No matter where I am, I’ve been talking about this book, If Nuns Ruled the World, and the questions that I inevitably get from sisters are “how can we meet and connect with more young women?” And the questions I get from young women who read the book are, “Oh my God,” or “OMG, how can I meet sisters and how can I connect with sisters?” So the fact that all of you are here in one place is just awesome.

Garrett Tiedeman:
This episode features Jo Piazza, whose life changed dramatically after meeting and learning about women religious. Her book, If Nuns Ruled the World, is the product of this journey, and her talk at the NCSW 2015 discern. conference in Saint Paul, MN was a highlight.

It was really Sr. Simone Campbell who made me make that leap, of NETWORK and the Nuns on the Bus. I had started spending some time with her, working on a story about her, and started following her Twitter account, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Nuns tweet.” And from there I found a lot of other sisters on social media, all of whom were incredibly awesome. Like I said, one of whom was tweeting about the Pittsburgh Pirates religiously, and she was so good. ESPN should really hire her to do a column. And then another sisters who would tweet the entire rosary and another one who’s soliciting prayer. All these sisters with these amazing blogs. One of the women who I love, so much, I talk about her in my book-- she was still discerning, so I didn’t include her as a chapter-- but we’ve become good friends, is Sarah Marx. She was my age. I was 29-ish, 30 when I started writing the book, and she was two years younger. Her blog was called “Mascara and Prayer,” and it was all about how she loved fancy scarves, and mascara, and doing her hair, and becoming a sister. So it was amazing, because she was the first sister I met that was my age. We talked about everything. She was dating one day and then spending time in community with sisters the next day, and trying to figure out what that meant, and what it would ultimately mean. Her and Sr. Simone Campbell were really my two gateway drugs into saying, “Hey, there’s a story here.” And the journalist in me was like, “You have to be the one to tell the story because no one else is right now.”

So I wanted to start out, because the theme of this conference is “discern,” with a small ‘d’, and a period, which is the hippest thing ever-- I can’t wait to take that back to New York-- I’ll tell everyone that they’re limited edition and they can’t have one of them.

Well, being with the Nuns on the Bus was incredible because, for one reason that actually has nothing to do with sisters. They had this bus driver that I was fascinated by, because every time we would stop in a different town-- so when the Nuns on the Bus stopped in a town, they were like rockstars. It was as if the Backstreet Boys in 1998 had just gotten off of that bus. Everyone crowded around and would start screaming and yelling, they would run off the bus to the Rocky theme, they had t-shirts with all of the cities on the back… and their bus driver was just this kinda burly dude with a mullet who would stand on the side of this crowd, smoking cigarettes. One day I was like, “Bill. What’s your deal? How’d you start driving the nuns around?” And he said, “Oh, you know, I’m just a bus driver. Before the nuns I was driving around the members of the band Journey.” And he was wearing a Journey t-shirt at the time. I was like, “Fantastic! That’s great! What’s the difference between driving Journey around and driving these Catholic sisters around?” And he was like, “Less drugs.” But then he reconsidered it for a second, and said, “Different drugs.” The sisters have a lot of prescription medication. I’m like, “Okay. Thanks, Bill.” So that was surprising. It was surprising. And kind of exciting. I think it’s amazing because, while I was writing this book--and I spent about three years reporting and writing If Nuns Ruled the World-- that’s three years of spending time on my weekends with Catholic sisters. I spent a lot of that time thinking about what discerning meant. What the word “discern” meant, as a verb, as an action. What it meant in my life as a young woman who knew she wasn’t going to become a sister, but how could I apply the concepts of discerning to my life as a thirty-something woman? So I wanted to talk a little bit about my own path, how the sisters completely changed my path, and where I’m at now, and what the idea of discernment means to me.

Gina Giambruno:
How has getting to know all these sisters changed you in your personal life?

In a thousand different ways. It really has. I’m a journalist in the strictest sense of the word, in that I go in with a lot of objectivity, and I try not to get involved with my subjects, or emotionally attached to my subjects, and that all went straight to hell in a handbook, because , they ask questions back, and they ask hard questions back. I spent so much time with them that I really absorbed a lot of their way of life, and it was really simple and authentic. They knew what they wanted and they went after it, and they made what was a really hard choice: to give up all of the things that we think are important, to give up a career that would make a lot of money, to give up the idea of marriage, to give up the idea of having children, to live a life that they found authentic. And it was scary for them, it’s scary to talk about it, and it was scary for me to confront the questions that would have changed my life. I mentioned Sr. Madonna, who goaded me into running a half marathon-- but, by virtue, she knew exactly what she was doing when she did that. Because by virtue of doing that, I quit smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, I quit drinking, and I lost thirty pounds. I became ridiculously healthy, and started hiking, and met my current boyfriend--who I’m madly in love with and probably going to marry-- on an adventure trip to the Galapagos. So. She knew what she was doing when she dared me to do that half marathon. They also made me consider: am I living in the present? Am I happy with my life? Do I live a life with purpose? And that was why I quit my job at the celebrity magazine to launch Yahoo! Travel, which I do think is inspiring every day, and I do think it gives people a sense of purpose. So, yeah, they made me a lot happier. They made me a lot cooler, too.

So, for a long time, for about four years ago, I was leading kind of a double life. I had what a lot of people would call a dream job. I ended up somehow, through, like, the wishy-washy twists and turns of New York City media and journalism, running two celebrity magazines, InTouch and Life & Style. They’re the ones that you’ll frequently see on airplanes and at checkout counters. This was one of my top-selling magazine covers: “Kim Kardashian Can’t Stop Eating.” So during the week, what I was doing is interviewing celebrities and appearing in the magazine and doing all these fancy things. Which a lot of people, especially a lot of young American women, you talk to them and they’re like, “Oh my gosh. That’s just this amazing job.” Yep, yep, there’s Brett Michaels from Poison. And so this is what I was doing on weekends. (audience laughs) And so this was my double life. I was hanging out with these celebrities and running these magazines, which are totally vacuous and a little bit toxic for the world, and spending my weekends with sisters. It balanced out. I felt bad about myself, I felt good about myself. Over the course of reporting over three years with the sisters, I traveled to about six different states with the Nuns on the Bus, hopping on and off the bus. I was with Sr. Simone Campbell when she gave her incredible speech at the DNC. And then I traveled to, I think, 21 different states to interview other Catholic sisters. Everyone kept asking me, “How do you find these women?” I always tell people that before we had Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram-- that Catholic sisters were the very first social network. Because they can connect you with absolutely anyone in the world faster than anyone else. And so one sister led to another sister, and I ended up with these stories, like ten different stories, of ten incredible women who were changing their corners of the world for the better, and whose stories hadn’t been told outside of some very small circles. And I knew that I wanted to tell those stories. Part of my double life was that I was also finishing this master’s degree in religious studies, which also kind of cleansed my palate from all of the celebrity stuff that I was doing. But I couldn’t quite let go of that. I was scared in a lot of ways, because after living in New York for so long, I’d been told, “you want this high powered magazine editor job, and you want to live this fancy lifestyle.” When you’re hanging out with sisters, every single weekend, they tell you that none of that matters, and that your life is absolutely silly. They don’t mince words when they tell you that. So, I slowly started thinking about who I was, and what I wanted to be doing. It was really a lot of baby steps. They would ask me, “What exactly does a celebrity magazine editor do?” and I said, “Well, you know, I interview a lot of famous people, like the Kardashians,” and they’re like, “Who is that?” and I’m like, “Don’t you watch TV?” (audience laughs) And so we watched an episode of the Kardashians and they’re like, “This is terrible!” And I was like, “I know. It is. I’m sorry.” And so they started putting a little bug in my ear about that. A few months later, I was talking to Sr. Madonna Buder. I bring her up a lot when I’m talking to people who don’t know anything about sisters, when they’re like, “Oh, what makes your nuns so special?” And I’m like, “Well, Sr. Madonna is 84 years old and she’s done 47 Iron Man races, and she runs like three marathons a year, and what did you do last weekend?”

With your book, what are some of the misconceptions that you hope will be taken away from Catholic sisters?

That they’re all old, that they all wear a habit, that they’re all strict, and carrying around rulers they want to hit you with, that they’re stern and unloving and unhappy, that they’re asexual, that there’s something weird or wrong with them because they chose a life of chastity. I mean, one of the questions that I get from almost everyone that finds out I wrote a book about Catholic nuns and I spend a lot of time with them is, “oh, my God, but they don’t have sex.” It’s a non-issue. That’s what I discovered. I talked to every sister in my book about that. Chastity means something different to each and every sister that I interviewed. And they do love men. Most of them dated. Many of them were engaged. Some of them were married. And so becoming a sister isn’t about hating men or hating the idea of intimacy at all-- it’s really just about a respect for themselves, a respect for their bodies, and an openness to have their heart open to absolutely everyone, instead of just one person. But our society loves to focus on the sex part of it.

So she started egging me on a lot, too. Part of my lifestyle was working 80 hours a week. I was terribly unhealthy, I was going out and drinking champagne and eating appetizers every night. And Sr. Madonna was like, “You should run.” I’m like, “I can’t run.” And she’s like, “No, you should start running. I’m 84. If I can do an Iron Man, you can probably do a 5k.” (audience laughs) And she really dared me to do it, too. When a sister dares you to do something, you’re like, “Okay…” Yes. So I did, I started training and I trained for my first half marathon because she dared me to do it, and then I did it, and I felt amazing, and that small step changed all of these other things in my life. Again, I started thinking, “What do I wanna do?” I know I’m a very good journalist, I know I’m a great writer. I’d written two books at that point-- I was writing this book, which I felt was a really important piece of journalism and reporting. One day, I walked into my boss’s office and I quit. And I said, “It’s just not for me anymore.” I didn’t know what I was going to do next. If I’ve learned anything from spending so much time with sisters, it’s that things fall into place, and you have to trust that if you make the right decisions, then the right things will fall into place for you.

So, I had gone to an all-girls Catholic high school, because I was basically a 12-year old juvenile delinquent. I’m pretty sure my father paid them extra money under the table to let me into high school. But there weren’t that many Catholic sisters in my high school, and frankly, they were terrifying. They were still the sisters that wore the habits and were really strict, and I didn’t know them that well. For a lot of the younger women, having sisters on campus was something of a punchline. We didn’t spend enough time with them. We didn’t get to interact with them, which is why when two decades later, I started doing research with Catholic sisters and actually spending time with them, my eyes were opened so much, and I had such a shock at finding out how amazingly cool they all were. I was like, “Wow, these are stories that I have to tell.”

And so a lot of that got me to thinking about the process of discernment. How my three years of reporting with sisters forced me to reflect, and it forced me to get out of my comfort zone and consider things that I’d never considered, to ask myself these really hard questions. And for me, that’s what discerning means. It’s getting out of your comfort zone. It’s maybe taking a path that you never thought you were going to take, and I don’t think I can stress how valuable that is for absolutely anyone. So it doesn’t matter what religion you are, if you’re a boy, if you’re a girl, where you live, or what age you are. But being able to take that time out, and not just think about it for yourself, but to think about what you’re going to do to impact the world around you, and impact the people directly connected to you in your life is so important and so invaluable. I think all of you: sisters, and young women, can really spread that message. Absolutely everyone can involve that in their lives. So, at this point, I figured it could be kinda fun to open things up to questions and just kind of start a conversation. Can we do that? Cool. Does anyone have any questions?

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