the New Evangelization: new in its ardor, new in its expressions, new in its methods

Pope John Paul II said that the New Evangelization is not a new message, but is new in its ardor, new in its expressions, and new in its methods

That was the first thing to come to mind when I viewed this YouTube clip of Sister Cristina Scuccia, a fireball of an Ursuline sister from Sicily, performing on The Voice:

Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos provides the backstory of Sister Cristina. For a transcript of the dialogue between Sister and the judges, click here or turn on the CC button on YouTube to see captions in English.

Notice how her witness awakens unmistakable joy in those who encounter her.

The dialogue that follows the song is a strong interpretive key of the event, I think. There is much to learn from the encounter.

Notice what Sister Cristina says in the exchange that follows her performance (translated from the Italian):

The pope invites us to go out and evangelize, to say that God takes nothing away from us, but rather, gives us even more!! That’s why I’m here!

She may be referencing a homily that Pope Benedict XVI gave at the Inaugural Mass of his papacy in 2005. If so, this sister would have been 16 years old when she heard it. At any rate, clearly she has taken this truth to heart:

If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. (source)

I loved the authenticity of Sister Cristina’s words… She didn’t have to think them over, but they emerged from within a heart given over to the love of God and her fellow brothers and sisters… those ‘interlocutors’ who were presented to her in a kind of ‘divine appointment’ of the moment.

Why was she on The Voice?

I have a gift; I’ll give it to you!

She wasn’t on the show for herself, but because she noticed that God desired to make an invitation to this audience, to woo them, to cause them to ‘look again’ and perhaps really see for the first time, to feel the call of beauty, which can then lay the groundwork for the call of goodness, and perhaps then for the call of truth. (Father Robert Barron recently highlighted this sequence during a keynote address at the LA Religious Education Congress).

Sister Cristina somehow discerned — with the assistance of her religious community — that this was a way God was inviting her to be a part of a divine gesture of love and invitation. In one of his early plays, Karol Wojtyla puts these words on the lips of one of his characters:

Everyone has been given an existence and a love; the only question is: how to build a sensible structure from it? (Adam, in The Jewelers Shop)

Some may ask: Will this effort be fruitful or not? That will be up to the grace of God and the disposition of the recipient. Sister Cristina simply responded to the invitation to cast the seeds far and wide. Yes, some will fall on rocky soil. But when she chose her coach, I think she chose the most favorable soil, as best as she could discern it. She chose, and left the rest to God.

When the idea of missionary endeavor in the field of entertainment is raised, some object by noticing the very real danger of the missionary being de-evangelized by the culture to which they seek to witness.

To be sure, every mission — whether to the entertainment industry, the porn industry, or Kenya, to name only three — has perils and dangers. But the presence of danger is not sufficient reason to avoid a mission field.

On a personal note: I remember how, when I first encountered this prayer by Barbara Nicolosi back in 2002, my perspective on Hollywood changed, and I began to see that it was a mission field to be loved and not simply a wasteland to be feared. One section of the prayer reads:

We ask forgiveness from every soul in torment and loneliness who has lived and died without the hope that we could have shared with them had we been better apostles of the media. We take responsibility for the darkness of error that we have allowed to flourish by our silence in the culture. For failing to stir the collective heart of humanity towards that which is good by beautiful movies and inspiring television, and haunting melodies, we are sorry. We ask forgiveness from all those whom we might have led to their knees, or sustained on their spiritual journeys, or inspired to a life of heroism and greatness.
Let us ask forgiveness of those whose lives have been scarred by our failure to find a compelling forum for the Church in the arts and media. For keeping the Gospel of Life to ourselves in a culture of death, we are ashamed and sorry. For ignoring the Church’s mandate to use film and television and radio to unite the human family in the cause of truth and social justice, we are sorry. We repent of the lack of creativity and passion with which we have applied Christian principles to the real problems of our day.

I responded by engaging in a period of study with the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program, followed by a time of discernment, and finally by moving to Los Angeles for five years to serve in the spiritual slums of Hollywood. For the most part, my own path in Hollywood was simply service to other artists out here, primarily through a Theology of the Body study group, assisting with an RCIA program in Hollywood, and serving as a juror for the Angelus Awards Student Film Festival. And yes, there were a few other random initiatives, such as this and this. At the end of those five years, I wrote this post about what my five years in the mission field were about, as best as I understood it.

Of course, each person must discern what God is really asking of them… where their unique talents and the needs of the world meet. This is not always an easy discernment. I think of Fr Walter Ciszek, SJ, in his spiritual autobiography He Leadeth Me; God led him down a path he least expected, but invited him to recognize His will in every encounter, especially in every setback, suffering and disappointment. God’s will, he learned, is not out there somewhere, in a place and time of our own choosing or imagining, but reveals itself here and now, in the duties of the present moment. That is where God’s will makes its appeal to us.

Back to Sister Cristina: From where I stand, and based on what I know of this Ursuline sister from Sicily, I cannot but applaud her for following the exhortation of Blessed Pope John Paul II to put out “into the deep.” No matter if everyone in the mission field of entertainment has been fishing all night, to no avail. No matter if the danger seems great, and the hope of a positive outcome seems dim. When God decides to make Himself known… when He finds a net, capable and willing to be cast out into deep waters, and when the deep is populated with creatures ready to respond, there is no telling what yield the encounter will bring. He alone knows what the yield will be. And the yield is really none of our business; it comes from Him, it belongs to Him, it is for Him.  All that matters, on our part, is to be a willing net.

UPDATE (3/25/14): Over at First Things, The Anchoress reflects on how some have reacted to Sister Cristina with an acid bath of ingratitude.

7 thoughts on “the New Evangelization: new in its ardor, new in its expressions, new in its methods

  1. Thank you for taking the time to examine this subject more fully. As I have considered things over the past few days and the social media buzz about Sister’s performance on “The Voice” I have found myself thinking about the question of Evangelization and Entertainment. In other words, I have been trying to place this event in a larger context than simply Sister’s performance. I have no interest in or desire to make any moral judgment about her at all. My questions surround the nature of evangelization in a consumer and consumptive society. Michael Hanby in an article on the Culture of Death in Communion (Summer 2004) wrote: “The culture of death is simultaneously a culture dominated by the notion of “entertainment.” The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of “stimulation” and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns.”

    To focus simply on her performance and the response of those who watched it is to perhaps ignore the cumulative effect of daily exposure to mass media where images sometimes swamp critical thought, where opinion is proposed as knowledge and sincerity is more highly regarded than truth. The benefits of information technology, whether through the internet or TV, does not mean one can accept modern means of social communication unquestioningly. Just because it exist doesn’t mean it will automatically have a positive effect in the pursuit of the Christian ideal or on evangelization.

    TV in particular is a hot medium that speaks directly to the emotions and the ease of accessibility means that it can be approached in an uncritical state of mind and receive simply what the programmers want to communicate. Some have described TV as food for the mind that is meant to be swallowed without being chewed. It is always trying to give something new and interesting but nonetheless something that is not interesting for long. Beyond that it teaches people to scorn complexity and to feel, not to think.

    Do such performances and the use of media (even by a religious) always or even occasionally promote a deeper contemplation of the truths of the faith or do they promote something that is more a caricature of the reality. Thomas Merton once described the effects of TV as follows: “Passivity, uncritical absorption, receptivity, inertia. Not only that, but a gradual yielding to the mystical attraction until one is spellbound in a state of complete communion. The trouble with this caricature is that it is really the exact opposite of contemplation: for true contemplation is precisely the fruit of a most active and intransigent rupture with all that captivates the senses, the motions, and the will on a material or temporal level. The contemplative reaches his passivity only after terrific struggle with everything that appeals to his appetites as a half-animal member of the human herd. He is receptive and still only because the stillness he has reached is lucid, spiritual and full of liberty. It is the summit of a life of spiritual freedom. The other, the ersatz, is the nadir of intellectual and emotional slavery.”

    While his thoughts are a bit acerbic, I do think they have some merit in this discussion. There must be due care given in the use of electronic media not simply because it can be a waste of time or that it is so often a channel of evil thoughts. Rather, the question is: “Does it erode the fundamental values and coarsen the mind itself through the daily preoccupation with the trivial?” When beliefs and values have already been weakened and withered where is the formation taking place today in the practice of the faith – in living the gospel – and the ascetical life that fosters purity of heart and the desire for God?

  2. Really appreciate your thoughts on the topic of the mass media and evangelization, Fr David. And I wouldn’t disagree with the serious concern about how this tsunami of media entertainment is affecting our spiritual lives. I have this item on my Amazon wish list: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

    I won’t address your every point right now, but here are a few thoughts:

    It is precisely the peril of the current situation that should impel us to send missionaries out to bandage up the legions of wounded on the battlefield. “Beauty will save the world,” to quote a line from Dostoevsky.

    My five years in Hollywood really cemented my conviction that Hollywood is not — to quote Barbara Nicolosi — Sodom and Gomorrah, but Nineveh. There is a certain economy of effort in trying to reach some of those producing the content that is being distributed on a global scale. On a related note: Where is there a greater need for contemplatives in the heart of the world that in the media/entertainment industry?

    I believe there are examples of art that can lead to the contemplation of the beautiful, and from there, reach into the heart of the willing soul to enkindle a desire for the good and the true. Some film projects that immediately come to mind are found here. Granted, these projects are not all “mainstream” entertainment, but some are…

    • Thank you Clayton and I will take a look at the conversation.

      I can’t help but look to Christ himself when thinking about this and hear the words “the disciple is not greater than his Master.” When considering the life of Christ we often don’t consider its radical humility and hiddenness: born of the Virgin, 30 years of silence in Nazareth and though Son of God manifesting himself as servant – the secret and hidden wisdom of God. This self-emptying hiddenness and silence will consume Jesus’ whole soul at the time of the Passion and foreshadowing this he warns others sternly not to make him known. Matthew tells us that in this warning Jesus fulfills the words of Isaiah that when he comes “he will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets . . . ” Such self effacing anonymity means that Jesus’ triumph comes not by engaging in the world’s way – either violence or self exaltation – but by his abiding in humility and allowing death to descend upon him. While proclaiming the Gospel to the Pharisees he never descends to their level of argumentation, for example. For Jesus to be Child of the Father is one and the same thing for him to be servant and victim.

      When we think of this in regards to our own life and actions in the world we are forced to ask: Who could know better than God himself where truly efficacious redemption lies? He suffers so that the life of the Trinity might flow out into the world and its ignorance and sin. It is in this way that he allows the Father’s voice to be heard in the world. At the Cross, Jesus grows silent that the Father may speak – – that the Word may perfectly accomplish the work for which it is sent.

      It seems to me that when considering the “new evangelization” we must consider the good news as it came to us. We are so focused on the exterior and often have so little self knowledge that we don’t see the true plane on which Jesus lived his interior life. In his ministry He would never forsake the true source of his truth and redemptive power in the Father.

  3. Fr David – Again, point very well taken.

    You’ve expressed better than I could why I often find applications of the Theology of the Body in popular culture to ring false. We have to examine our preference for glory without the cross, the eschaton without the passion, an exaltation that does not first involve being brought low… What Flannery O’Connor identified as our perverse attraction to sentimentality, to “life without the hard edges”:

    By separating nature and grace as much as possible, [the average Catholic reader] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.

    That is why I think it is so important to understand the nada doctrine of St John of the Cross… to recognize that, in the Christian life, comfort comes by way of upset.

    But if we allow our lives to be patterned on that of our Master, from the other side of the dark night, authentic light and comfort can emerge. It is not beyond the realm of the possible. This, I think, was the real refrain that we heard coming from Blessed John Paul II, if only we had ears to hear.

    In the words of Sister Cristina during a July 2013 interview:

    Asked “What is faith to you?”, Sister Cristina explains to reporter Laura Badaracchi of Credere:

    “It’s like a tunnel: we come in and it all seems dark, confused. But in the end you expect a beautiful light, a living presence that embraces, which is the hands, voice and breath, as I wrote in my song. Just available to listen, to accept this gift, without being distracted by so much ‘noise’ in the background. To answer the call of Jesus is liberating: it does not disappoint.” (source)

  4. “Surprised by Joy”, is the reaction I believe those judges had, when in an instant they knew what Sister Christina was singing about.

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