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.