I found Inquiring Nuns a very intriguing film. I have never seen a film structured in that format, and although the idea was quite simple, to ask people on the street if they are happy and record their responses, the vast array of answers was illuminating. The majority of the respondents immediately said yes without hesitation, but for the few who hesitated or showed more restraint, their answers displayed the difficulty in answering that simple question: “are you happy?”
The nuns questioned people after mass at a Church located somewhere in Chicago, and each person responded positively that they were happy. Many remarked that what made them happy was having a good family, being relatively successful, and having a good home, while U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was the most commonly stated unhappiness in people’s lives in 1968 when the film premiered. One women specifically stated that one factor increasing her happiness was that she lived within a lovely parish. This reminded me of our week discussing local politics and how Catholics relate to both politics and to their parish. I learned during class discussion that it is not unusual for Catholics to identify themselves by their home parish. Although less common today, the parish remains a community gathering area for more than just worship. Children go to the parish school, the Church has community outreach programs, and Church buildings are often even voting centers for elections.
Many parishes remain the center of American life for newly arrived immigrants or for specific ethnicities who are clustered in one area of the city. The women in the film interviewed by the nuns believed that her parish was part of the reason why she was happy. Based off of the documentary, the parish appeared to be predominately black, demonstrating how parishes are typically formed around a specific racial, ethnic, or cultural background. In the early 1900s, Chicago was even more segregated by race and ethnicity than it is today, so politicians took advantage of this. They realized that finding political success in Chicago “depended primarily on the ability to understand the needs of ethnic minorities and minister to them” (Buenker 3). If a politician was not of the same ethnic background as the majority of their constituents, they needed to tailor their policies and campaign to acknowledge any ethnic connection they may have and respect the cultural differences.
Finances were an underlying factor in many of the interviewed people’s happiness, although more commonly interviewees referred to it as success. Whether they were Catholic or not, success was important and lack of career successful or professional fulfillment bred unhappiness. Rev. Geno Baroni, was a national leader in the 1970s, soon after this film premiered, as an advocate for urban improvements, specifically for white ethnics. He worked to create a multicultural, national coalition to ease the “socio-economic disadvantages felt by white ethnic Americans” (Merton 4). He worked to bond white ethnics beyond their own individual ethnicity into a stronger coalition to advocate for stronger policies to help their economic struggles. He believed that “neighbourhood revitalization programmes for ethnic communities… would rejuvenate the blighted urban areas in which they lived” (Merton 4). Living in a safe, supportive community (parish) along with a financial safety net and the ability to earn a living vastly increase an individual’s happiness. Baroni’s work likely had the unintentional effect of making people happier.
The most interesting fact, however that I took away from Inquiring Nuns was the different ways in which people define happiness. Many people commented that they were happy at that moment while others stated more generally that they were happy in life. People were important, as in having close connections with friends and family and meeting new people brought happiness and kept them happy. It was the people who did not immediately respond ‘yes!’ when asked whether they were happy, that intrigued me the most. Some stated simply that they were not happy, yet other interviewees questioned what it meant to define oneself as happy or whether happiness was a state of being or a more momentary emotion. The one conclusion that can be drawn from the documentary is that everyone uniquely defines happiness for themselves, yet coincidentally, many people assert the same factors as requirements for happiness and name them as reasons why they are happy.