Friday, October 24, 2014

Why I don't like the Sr. Cristina phenomenon

From the first video of Sr. Cristina Scuccia's appearance on Italy's "The Voice," I felt uncomfortable. The entire Catholic world seemed to be lauding her witness, while I felt something I could not quite pinpoint that just didn't feel right. I spoke to a couple of friends who generally share similar views as me, but both seemed to think it was a great moment of evangelization.

So, I stayed silent as the Sr. Cristina videos increased and the YouTube hits climbed into the millions. In some ways, Sr. Cristina was becoming the new "poster child" for the New Evangelization. Everyone was talking about her.

The "singing nun" sensation grew this week with Sr. Cristina's release of the first song on her album, a cover of Madonna's "Like a Virgin."

My adverse reaction continued, maybe even grew. But she reclaimed/redeemed/renewed what Madonna did 30 years ago, the headlines read. Still, I could barely bring myself to click on the video, and when I did I did not walk away convinced.

Finally, this morning I came across the first criticism I've seen. Barbara Nicolosi was interviewed by the Catholic News Agency and is quite vocal in her disagreement with Sr. Cristina's musical choices.

© MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP
Barbara Nicolosi, a Hollywood screenwriter and Catholic cultural commentator, suggested that Sister Cristina Scuccia’s choice of Madonna’s risqué song “reflects the lack of thought, seriousness and decorum that is predictable of so much of our societal and ecclesial life today.”

Sr. Cristina, an Ursuline nun, in early June won first place on the musical competition TV show The Voice Italy. She has now released a cover of the 1984 Madonna song as the first single of her new album.

Nicolosi noted the original song’s music video and its use of Catholic imagery was “widely condemned” among Catholics.

“It was clear that Madonna was ridiculing the Church’s reverence for the Blessed Virgin and so many lay people and clergy came out to speak against Madonna and the piece,” Nicolosi told CNA Oct. 22.

“That's another reason why this is a weird piece for a Catholic nun to try and repurpose.”

Nicolosi has plenty more to say here.


The piece confirmed some of my own misgivings, though we might have some different reasons behind our dislike of the pop music-singing nun phenomenon.  I think what bothers me in large part is two-fold.

First, the new evangelization seems to be confused with relevancy, and relevancy with modernity.  If it doesn't utilize the latest "thing" -- technology, slang, hit movie/music/television show, graphics, etc. -- then it isn't "relevant."  So we preach the Gospel by making T-shirts that look like secular T-shirts ... only ours have a Catholic message.  And we use the latest songs, but we change the lyrics.  We find the hit movie and redesign the poster.  And because the secular versions of these things are "cool" (although, I know the word itself is no longer "cool"), we hope that people will see the "Catholic" versions and jump on board.

Secondly, and somewhat related, a religious sister is one who is "set apart."  She is the bride of Christ in a unique way.  There is something mysterious about that, and it should be mysterious. In fact, I would argue that the mystery is intriguing and attractive to people who might not be regular church-goers.  "Here is something different," they might say.  "I want to learn more."

A religious sister is an icon of heaven.  I certainly hope we are not signing Alicia Keys and Madonna songs for eternity.  If a sister is "set apart" and a sign of heaven, then she has a unique gift to point our minds and hearts heavenward.  We should see this "something different" and be captivated.  We should see the joy and the love and the beauty and be pointed to God.

But, at least it seems to me, many of the people who were so intrigued by Sr. Cristina's appearance on "The Voice" were more entranced by the idea that a "Catholic nun" could sing or be on television or do something other than pray.  What different reaction might Sr. Cristina's rendition of "Girls just want to have fun" inspire versus the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist's "Mater Eucharastiae" CD?  Sure, Sr. Cristina has a powerful voice, but is "Girls just want to have fun" really intrinsically beautiful?  

Is it appropriate for one who is especially chosen in love as the bride of Christ to become some sort of commodity for the world who wants to be shocked and titillated by a habited woman who sings?  Yes, there are religious communities who have recorded CDs, but there seems to be a difference.  These CDs and television appearances are an invitation into a hidden life -- an opportunity to catch a rare glimpse of women who are praying and singing.  Sr. Cristina gave a performance, and though she may have been praying while she was singing, no one would necessarily know that based on the songs, style and way of performing.  

MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
One might argue that Sr. Cristina's music will be more popular because it is pop music, but lest anyone forget, chanting nuns and monks' CDs have shot to the top of the charts in recent years, dumbfounding many people.  There is something captivating about the music, the prayer, the witness that people find themselves listening to and then downloading and purchasing and playing.  They find it peaceful or inspiring or beautiful.

And beauty is a form of evangelization that we desperately need in an ugly world.

We certainly don't lack for performers in our culture.  We have any number of television shows to watch with singing competitions.  In that, Sr. Cristina became one among many -- another singer, another performer ... this one who happened to be a sister.  As a culture, I don't think we need a "Catholic" version of today's songs.  I think we need to be invited into something more, something beautiful.

Several years ago I was listening to another round of the age-old youth ministry battle -- Should those who serve the youth watch all of the latest movies, listen to the latest music and immerse themselves in the latest everything so as to be relatable?  Common thought is, "Yes."  But in this particular conversation, one young woman said she thought differently.  "These kids are surrounded by people who watch all of the movies and the shows and listen to the music," she said.  "And we tell them not to watch certain shows or listen to certain songs because they are bad influences.  Then we watch them.  What these kids need to know is ... 'I didn't watch that movie or listen to that song, and it's okay not to watch these things.  Not everyone is seeing this movie or listening to this music.  That itself is an invaluable witness.'"

Her thoughts struck me and have resonated with me even 8 years later.  The world needs witnesses who in not "keeping up" with all of the latest fads are actually saying it's possible to live differently and it's worth living differently.  I don't need to watch MTV to know that a young person needs to encounter Love.

So, in summary, after such a long post (!), I certainly respect Sr. Cristina's desire to spread the Gospel and to share her talents.  She has certainly been vocal about her desire to evangelize, and has been a witness in her decision to renew temporary vows when some women might have jumped for the chance of fame and fortune.


But every time I see a video of her clutching the microphone like a pop star or diva, I cringe a little. I cringe because it seems to me the songs and style are not becoming of a sister, are not worthy of a sister.  I cringe because I want to see something truly, counterculturally different when I see a religious sister.  I want the world to know that the Church has her own unique, beautiful gifts to offer -- not just covers and replays.  In seeing one who is "set apart," people's hearts can truly be captivated and brought to Something More.  Meeting people where they are doesn't have to be synonymous with catering to the lowest common denominator.  The world needs to be invited above.  A lay person might be called to do this by being "in the world" (not of it), but it seems that those who are consecrated are called to a different form of fostering encounters with Christ.  

And that's why the world may be pressing the "Share" button with every new Sr. Cristina release, but I just can't jump on board.


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