I hear your voice, it’s like an angel sighing
I have no choice, I hear your voice
Feels like flying
I close my eyes, oh God I think I’m falling
Out of the sky, I close my eyes
Heaven help me
(Madonna, Like a Prayer)
A group of young and attractive nuns dance joyfully while a gospel choir sings and a male dancer performs an impressive sequence of châinés leaps. It seems like the beginning of a musical titled “Sister Act meets Jesus Christ Superstar,” and I seriously want to continue watching it.
Except that the song ends and it comes out that one of the nuns (the one wearing plain black, an head-cover and a big cross around her neck) is actually a real nun. Which makes me extremely happy, as she puts together the three things I’m a nerd about: religion, media, and dance. Certainly, she’s no ordinary nun: she is Suor Cristina (Sister Cristina), who won the Italian edition of “The Voice” in 2014 (and, clearly, I had to write an article about her at the time).
The nun-dance is part of “Ballando con le Stelle” (28 April 2018), the Italian edition of “Dancing with the Stars.” Suor Cristina already performed, in 2015, at the French version of the same program, called “Danse avec les Stars.” In that occasion, Suor Cristina sang her cover version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” whose lyrics she managed to give a new, and more spiritual, meaning. Apparently, Madonna herself took interest in the young nun, tweeting a photoshopped image of the two of them together with the text “Sisters for Life! #TouchedForTheVeryFirstTime.” I don’t know if Madonna was being ironic or just wanted to show off her long legs, but surely Suor Cristina’s “Like a Virgin” is beautifully sung (and the double meaning in the song’s title way too obvious).
Suor Cristina recently came back to the music world with the song “Felice” (Happy), which she also sang after the nun-dance during the “Ballando con le Stelle” episode. She frequently refers to God, Jesus, and religion: sometimes she does so very openly, as for example when she prayed on live TV after she won “The Voice,” and sometimes she does so more subtly, talking about wanting to make people happy and diffusing a joyful message.
While Suor Cristina was criticized by some atheists and Catholics, she seems to be generally welcomed by TV hosts and other singers. J Ax, a singer who became famous in the 1990s trying to bring rap to Italy and successfully producing a number of songs about marijuana use, became her coach at “The Voice.” He declared himself an atheist, but he frequently praised the type of Catholicism (young and joyful) that Suor Cristina is showing on TV. It seems that the surprise of many Italian and international celebrities in seeing Sister Cristina covering Madonna is expressed together with the sincere admiration for this type of Catholicism.
It is indeed a Catholicism that detaches itself from the severe and strict Vatican that prohibits pop culture consumption (remember how sad we all were when Pope Benedict XVI condemned Harry Potter?), and embraces the joyful appreciation of music and dance. Didn’t also Pope Francis (who met Suor Cristina and received her album as a gift) dance tango in his youth, excelling in the sinful and yet fascinating tradition of his home country?
Following those priests who encourage the use of music in churches (does Christian Rock ring a bell?), Suor Cristina uses her songs with the (not really) secret agenda of diffusing a religious message. And it is a message carefully crafted, which can almost seem secular and yet is profoundly religious. She frames Catholicism as a joyful way of life, a positive attitude to everyday experiences, and embodies with her garments and her cross the very essence of dedicating a life to the church while being similar to many women her age. As Stewart Hoover, one of my mentors, wrote, in the complicated relationship between Christian celebrities and media Suor Cristina justifies her use of secular media by framing them as a way to carry on her evangelical action.
While watching Suor Cristina and secretly trying her moves without my neighbours noticing it from the window, a question surfaced in mind: is this type of Catholicism successful?
Before answering, it is important to note that the Pew Research Center titled a web article with the kind of crude but most probably accurate sentence “Christians in Europe are dying faster than they are being born.” If in 1910 the 65% of the Catholic population was in Europe, in 2010 it was reduced to a mere 24% (and in 2013 they dared elect a non-European Pope, something some Italian Catholics I know are still secretly mourning). The Annuarium Statisticum, the statistical book of the Catholic Church, reports a global trend of declining clergy vocation., despite Pope Francis allowing enclosed nuns the use of social networks. The recent referendum about abortion in Ireland suggests that the influence of the Catholic Church is declining in many parts of the modern world and that people increasingly ignores clergy’s admonitions when it comes to politics.
With this in mind, will the type of Catholicism promoted by Suor Cristina –joyful, young, and carefully avoiding controversial issues such as abortion and homosexuality –bring more young people back to the Church?
My educated guess is that we should wait some more years and look again at statistics, but it is certainly possible that Catholic clergy members such as Suor Cristina are contributing to diffuse a more positive image of the Catholic Church.
What it is sure is that Suor Cristina shows how a certain type of Catholicism is still more than welcome in the Italian (and European) public sphere. People might stop going to church and support reproductive rights, but they do not necessarily see a dancing-singing-nun as something offensive or against state secularism. This type of attitude has been defined by some scholars as “belonging without believing” (Marchisio and Pisato, 1999). In the case of Italy, it means that some people do not believe in the existence of a god, but are still part of the Catholic Church. Which definitely makes me think of all my very atheist friends who got married in a church to make grandma happy, and also maybe because churches are just so prettier than city halls.
The “belonging without believing” paradigm certainly exists in many different declinations in various countries, and it complicates the idea of secularization. People’s personal beliefs may decline, but religion still exists in the public sphere, reaching also “The Voice” and “Dancing with the Stars.” This could be partially explained by a theory that is called “mediatization”. According to Stig Hjarvard (2012), who extensively wrote about this theory, media today are so pervasive that they change the way people interact with each other and create new condition to experience religion. Mia Lovhëim (2014) explains that there are some important outcomes that we need to keep in mind: first, people tend to gain knowledge of religion through media; second, media diffuse forms of religious-inspired pop-culture; third, media take over functions that beforehand belonged to religion.
Stig Hjarvard and Mia Lovhëim work respectively in Denmark and Sweden, and therefore study two contexts that are very different from those of Italy or other prevalently Catholic countries. However, what seems true of their theory in case of Suor Cristina is that media become a new and non-traditional space for the diffusion of religious messages, that are mixed with pop culture and entertainment. I don’t know if people watch Suor Cristina’s performance to know more about religion or as a form of religious practice, but certainly many members of the audience are sufficiently comfortable with a nun dancing and singing in a secular media space. Also, with Suor Cristina, Catholicism finds a new way to be publicly talked about. Pop culture in this case is not about religion (as it could be for “Jesus Christ Superstar”), but used by religion.
In summary, what seems to me is that today’s religion in certain places of the world is less connected to traditional institutions but more public, because more present in media venues. Many people welcome this type of pop-culture/religion because they still feel a sort of sense of belonging to religious institutions (and, again, the nun-dance is kind of good).
At this point, there’s another question that pops into my mind: what would happen if Suor Cristina wore a Muslim hijab instead of a Catholic nun head-cover?
Luckily, media also dealt with Muslim singers and artists, and treated them in a slightly different way. I will talk about it in my next post, because, if Netflix taught me something, it’s always better to end with a cliff-hanger.
The pictures of Sister Christina dancing are screenshots retrieved from https://www.raiplay.it/video/2018/04/Suor-Cristina-ballerina-per-una-notte-28042018-75522ad6-aa23-4e57-b314-857c942910b9.html [27.05.2018]
The tweet from Madonna is retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.it/2014/10/23/madonna-suor-cristina-twitter_n_6035984.html [27.05.2018]
These are the works I quoted:
Hjarvard, Stig, and Mia Lovheim, eds. 2012. Mediatization And Religion: Nordic Perspectives. Göteborg: Nordicom.
Lovheim, Mia. 2014 in “Mediatization and Religion” in Lundby, Knut. 2014. Mediatization of Communication. De Gruyter Mouton.
Marchisio, Roberto and Maurizio Pisati, “Belonging without Believing: Catholics in Contemporary Italy,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 4, no. 2 (1999): 236–55.
If you want to know more about the theory of mediatization:
Couldry, Nick, and Andreas Hepp. 2013. “Conceptualizing Mediatization: Contexts, Traditions, Arguments.” Communication Theory 23 (3): 191–202. doi:10.1111/comt.12019
Lundby, Knut. 2014. Mediatization of Communication. De Gruyter Mouton.
And feel free to contact me or comment below if you have any idea.