She calls herself a “Media Nun” and with 14,000 plus Twitter followers, Sister Helena Burns more than earns the title, sharing her faith-filled musings, charming selfies, and love of the Chicago Blackhawks across her multiple social media platforms.
Her digitally savvy outreach might seem like a nod to changing times, but in fact her tweets and instagrams honor the mission set for her order all the way back in 1915 when Father Alberione, the founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, determined that their purpose should be to harness the power of media to spread the word of the Lord.
“I love to communicate. My talents lie in writing and communicating,” says Burns of her affinity for the work. “And I just believe we live in a media culture, so if we want to touch people on a deep level, what better way than through a book or a song or a film, something that people are used to turning to for inspiration, education, entertainment, relaxation.”
Burns credits her first rate public school education in Massachusetts and the influence of her parents, in particular her father who she describes as a Renaissance man, with helping her cultivate her creative instincts. She later honed those instincts with her screenwriting studies at UCLA, something which has influenced her tweets in somewhat unusual ways.
“At UCLA, they said for a love story, you shouldn’t just have the characters say, ‘I love you.’ You need to find a million ways to say “I love you” without saying it. And so I’m always trying to find a million ways to tell people God loves them without just saying, ‘God loves you,’ explains Burns.
Those storyteller instincts are now taking Burns beyond the world of social media and into the world of filmmaking. She’s currently finishing a documentary about the life of Father Alberione; she’s a co-producer on a documentary about abortion; and she appears briefly in another about homosexuality.
When asked if she might be seen at the Oscars one day, Burns laughs, “Wouldn’t that be great! I wouldn’t have to worry about what to wear!”
Here, the social Sister talks Hollywood, the power of storytelling, and shares her thoughts on that show-stopping turn by Sister Cristina Scuccia on Italy’s “The Voice.”
Your work with social media is about spreading a message, but what are you learning by engaging with the medium?
That’s a good question. I would say there’s plenty of wonderful news and information out there, but the best thing about it is that it’s social, it’s social media. So, I am meeting amazing people and I’m actually developing relationships, believe it or not, in 140 characters; I favor Twitter much more than Facebook. It’s the amazing, beautiful people that I meet every day online, that I keep up with every day online, that enrich me. And sometimes I meet these people in real life and it continues from there or I meet them in real life and then this is how we keep in touch.
How big is this network of “media nuns” and is there someone on the web whose efforts particularly impress you or inspire you?
There’s @digitalnun, she’s a Benedictine in England. I stay up late, I’m a night owl, so when she’s just waking up I’m going to bed. She’s so sweet. She greets everybody in the morning and tells them she’s praying for them. She welcomes all her new followers. She’s adorable. My own sisters are obviously very media active, so I’m constantly interacting with my own nuns.
I have my little thing where I do ANFOT: “Another Nun Found On Twitter.”
One of my sisters, @nunblogger, is actually moving to England for a year to help our sisters in England with their online presence. She was kind of my mentor, Sister Anne Flanagan. She kind of taught me Twitter and she’s laughing now because I have way more followers than she does! And I have my little thing where I do ANFOT: “Another Nun Found On Twitter.” Because there’s way more priests than nuns on Twitter.
You studied screenwriting at UCLA. Will more filmmaking be part of your future work?
Oh, I hope so. I believe we have to learn to tell stories visually more and more because we live in a post-literate world. We need to say in visuals what we used to say in print, especially for the sake of young people.
There’s been so much lame Christian media for so long.
And because of this younger generation, the quality is really increasingly exponentially. There’s been so much lame Christian media for so long. But it’s getting better and better. Like, contemporary Christian music, I think has arrived. I mean the bands are -- like Switchfoot or P.O.D. -- they’re just on a par, so much so that they kind of switch back and forth. They’re mainstream. They can perform in the Christian world or the secular world. TobyMac was on the top of the Billboard charts.
It’s because of the quality, and Father Alberione was so big on that. He would say you don’t spare any expense, you get the best machine, not that you imitate, but that your quality should be on a par with whatever is the finest quality in media today. That was really big for him.
I saw you live tweeted the Oscars and expressed your appreciation for many actors and films. Is it hard for a film-loving nun to find appropriate fare coming out of Hollywood?
No. No, not at all. I think of Mother Dolores Hart, the former Emmy award-winning actress. She’s part of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and she votes every year.
Look at “The King’s Speech” that won Best Picture. I believe that the cream rises to the top. In spite of everything -- and I mean there’s a lot I could say about all the other stuff that comes out!
There’s lots and lots of violence against women just being portrayed graphically...we’re watching the degradation and abuse of women non-stop.
One of my biggest beefs is it’s so dark, it’s just so dark now. Like, "Breaking Bad," "Walking Dead," "True Detective." There’s lots and lots of violence against women just being portrayed graphically. It all gets righted in the end, I mean there’s justice in the end, but meanwhile we’re watching the degradation and abuse of women non-stop. The feminists say we’re in rape culture right now, and I do believe that.
But, let me give you another example: “Noah.” Oh my gosh, I love this movie. Not only is it just a good movie, but it’s a Bible movie. I don’t know if you could call the director Darren Aronofsky “Hollywood,” because he’s kind of one of those outsider guys that they take risks on. He’s very demanding and really wants to keep his own vision and creative control. So, I think there’s dark and light. I mean look at “Despicable Me,” what a fabulous film! So constantly I am seeing amazing, amazing films coming out of Hollywood.
Hollywood is not a monolithic place. People think everyone’s just on the same page and they’re not. You’ve got such a mix there.
Hollywood is not a monolithic place. People think everyone’s just on the same page and they’re not. You’ve got such a mix there. You’ve got people from all over the world and the best filmmakers in the world head toward Hollywood. So, I think there’s an incredible variety and I think when films get too politically correct, or try to tow some kind of a line, that’s when they’re boring. That’s when it’s like, “Oh, yeah, we know what they’re going to say because they’re just trying to push an agenda.” When you start to push an agenda or you do a message film, you’re not doing art anymore and it’s not even entertaining. You’re being hammered over the head with a message.
Do you think that’s at all contradictory when you’re evangelizing through media?
No. Because what did Jesus do? He told stories. He did give us the Beatitudes and he would preach, but when he really wanted to get a message across, what he used the most was stories. Stories are eternal and you can turn them over a million times and go back to them a million times and get something new out of them. They just have a way of entrancing us and involving our whole person and we can be part of the story...there’s films where there’s so much there that you find yourself ruminating on them for days, weeks, months, because it’s so well done.
Stories are eternal and you can turn them over a million times and go back to them a million times and get something new out of them.
The first thing they taught us at UCLA was to tell the truth. And we would do these exercises to discover how hard it is to actually tell the truth. It’s like Emily Dickinson said: “But tell it slant.” So, you don’t just blurt it, or do what we call “on the nose.” That’s always ugly. When you know that the character is just saying something so the audience knows where the character was born -- that’s not how you do exposition. There’s a way to communicate the information you need to know in a seamless, hidden, artful manner...
The recent reaction to the video of Sister Cristina Scuccia singing on “The Voice” showed how fascinated people are by young nuns interacting with modern culture. Why do you think that is and does that give young nuns a special opportunity to spread the faith?
I hate the word “countercultural” because we don’t set out to be countercultural. We set out to live the Gospel. And the culture is not on a different page from the Gospel all across the board. For example, there’s food pantries. Everyone knows it’s a good thing to help the poor and feed the hungry and help the less fortunate. But if there is a divergence -- a point where the Gospel says this but it seems like the mainstream culture is going a different way -- well, we know where we need to go. We can’t go along with the culture on things that contradict the Gospel.
But sometimes I am like, “Oh my gosh, why are people so fascinated by us?” I saw Sister Cristina on “The Voice,” and first of all, the talent! The talent level was there; she could have been a singer. But she gave it all up to enter the convent. So I think the element of sacrifice is what people see. They don’t understand that we’re having a grand old time, and we don’t really feel the sacrifice that much, because this is what God wants us to do, and so we’re in the right place, and there’s a lot of joy.
I think it’s that our lives proclaim that God is real, that he is so real and so close to us that he can ask certain people to be only his. He’s enough. He can satisfy us. And you can’t easily dismiss that and you can’t just kind of get around that.
Our lives proclaim that God is real, that he is so real and so close to us that he can ask certain people to be only his. He’s enough. He can satisfy us.
I loved what Sister Cristina said when I did the translation. They said to her, “What are you doing on “The Voice?” and she said, “I have a gift and I’m giving you a gift. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” And I thought that’s brilliant! And then she added, “See? God doesn’t take anything away from us. He only adds.” I just thought, “Oh, that’s beautiful.”
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