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Review: Thea Bowman documentary shines like a 'Shooting Star'

Gunnar Gundersen reviews the latest movie on Servant of God Thea Bowman, which highlights her witness for justice and her experience of racism in the Catholic Church.

Servant of God Thea Bowman during an interview shortly before her death. (NewGroup Media)

Servant of God Thea Bowman continues to share the Good News, and one way to experience her wonderful ministry is by watching and sharing the new documentary on her life, “Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood.”

The film premiered on ABC earlier this fall, and is currently streaming online on the Diocese of Jackson’s YouTube channel. It is a powerful and inspiring examination of Bowman’s life, message, and sanctity.

As a visual biography, it gives an excellent overview of everything from her very early life with her parents to the end of her earthly life and her ongoing legacy. An important part of that story is how the Church, and specifically the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, invested in the education of Black children in the 20th century, including a young Bertha Bowman (who would become Sister Thea). Their faith in action inspired her to become a Catholic at the age of 9, and she soon became aware of her vocation.

The documentary does not shy away from the difficulties Bowman faced in pursuing a vocation within an all-White community. It also describes her navigating how much she should “assimilate” without sacrificing her Black self. The initial experience was one of repression, and much of the story from there focuses on how she learned to liberate herself within the context of the FSPA community.

Of course, the film also delves into how this spiritual journey of freedom has become a gift that Bowman has given the Church—especially the Black Church.

She became a voice of Black liberation within the Catholic context, showing how to love ourselves and our community within a Church that often supports leaders and spaces that want to hurt us. The documentary emphasizes this. It’s a wholesome thing, considering that this aspect of her ministry is one of the reasons so many of us are attached to her and have a special devotion to her.

Bowman had insights with respect to racism and the Gospel that are needed now more than ever. As Pope Francis stated in Fratelli Tutti, “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting.” It may be hard for some to see, but Sister Thea shared the different ways we can reveal the virus and protect ourselves from it.

She did this by embracing African clothing rather than European-inspired habits, by teaching Black spiritual and gospel music, and by sharing Black ways of speaking and moving. While we frequently hear about the “true, good, and beautiful” in modern evangelization, we do not see enough of it expressed in Black Catholic ways. Sister Thea shows us how to live this out authentically within the Catholic Church.

The contributors to the documentary had deep personal knowledge of her: schoolmates, fellow religious sisters, students, and scholars. Among them is Fr Maurice Nutt, CSsR a former student of hers that has written several books on her life, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

The inevitable turning point in the narrative is when Sister Thea is diagnosed with cancer. It was something that she offered to the Lord with the prayer, “Let me live until I die.” The Lord granted her prayer, and the documentary helps you see the joy she had and spread during a very difficult time, while not hiding her hardships.

Near its end, the movie turns to what was, once upon a time, my first experience of Sister Thea: her timeless speech to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 1989, on what it means to be Black in the Church and society. She was joyful, but clearly suffering from the ravages of cancer—similar to the last time I saw my Black abuela who loved her faith and the Church so much. Seeing this speech helped keep me in the faith when I felt that so many in the Church wished to push me out. (Part of the reason I write this review now rather than October is that these scenes were hard to get through emotionally.)

Alongside the recounting of her legendary speech, the film includes excellent commentary from Fr Bryan Massingale, who draws on Sister Thea’s rhetoric when saying she comes to the Church as a “fully functioning” Black Catholic. She follows that up by asking the bishops: “That doesn’t frighten you, does it?” As Massingale points out, the question was asked because it likely did frighten them. And there is evidence that it still does today.

The documentary also discusses the importance and value of Black clergy, especially bishops, and how Sister Thea emphasized such in her thought and her speech. It’s made even more poignant when considering recent reporting by Nate Tinner-Williams that “it’s likely that roughly half of the nation's currently active Black Catholic bishops—most of whom are openly aligned with Pope Francis’ vision for the Church—will no longer be in office by the time the USCCB meets [in] summer 2023 for its next general assembly.”

On the topic of legacy, many think of the question: “What would Sister Thea be doing today?” Massingale rephrases things in a powerful way: What is she doing today through her living legacy, especially her students? I can testify that she is still working for us through those like Fr Nutt who continue to make her teaching accessible, and through her heavenly intercession. That is one of the reasons that Orange County, California’s first council of the Knights of Peter Claver, of which I am a founding member, named our council after Sister Thea.

Notably, the segment in the film on Bowman’s lasting impact generally presented even the Black Lives Matter movement in a positive way. There is one mention of rioting in connection with protests, but it thankfully did not take up too much time. It was maybe the one thing I wished that had been left out. The main takeaway, and the right one, is that Sister Thea helped lay the foundation for things like BLM to exist in our society today. It was a great way to capture her legacy in this Catholic documentary.

Right now, it is easy to be discouraged. Many Black Catholics are rightfully seeing that we are not wanted by our own Church members, including many in leadership. As such, “Going Home Like a Shooting Star” has come at a perfect time. It is an inspiration. It is an instruction manual. It is a call to seek the intercessory power of one who was able to perform miracles of inspiration and reconciliation during her time on earth. Sister Thea has helped so many to find reasons to stay in the Church, but to not accept abuse: to really live the faith in a way that causes us to thrive as Black people. That really is the key.

For a Church in which it has become all too easy to dismiss Black people as “woke,” to describe us as “vile,” to see us as promoting anti-Christanity, and to spread all the other common tropes associated with Black spirituality, this documentary is a powerful reminder that we have someone who finished the race and kept the faith fighting for us to make it as fully functioning Black Catholics. This is our Church too, and no one can take that away from us—thanks to women like Servant of God Thea Bowman.

Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.

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