Singing Italian nun shows subtle shift in church under Francis

Many things mark the subtle shifts Pope Francis has brought to the culture of the church, including the weekend prayer meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Let me add one more: a singing nun.

The Internet is gyrating with buzz about Sr. Cristina Scuccia, a 25-year-old nun from Sicily who won the Italian version of the singing-contest television show "The Voice." Dressed in her habit, smiling ear-to-ear, Sister Cristina delivered a series of rock standards with a passion and verve that was hard to believe. It was as if they were filming "Sister Act 3" with Whoopi Goldberg ready to emerge from the wings and join in. 

But it was real. Go to this New York Times article: midway through, you can watch Sister Cristina's debut performance on the show, singing Alicia Keys' song "No One." In the first round of "The Voice," judges can't see the singers until the judges push a button and their chairs swing around to face the stage. When the Italian judges do this, look at their stunned expressions: They say almost everything about how the face of the church can grow and evolve -- yet stay true. 

When was the last time anyone saw a 25-year-old nun, especially one who gave herself over to the joys of singing, as Sister Cristina did on the show, songs from Bon Jovi and "Flashdance"? She is relatable and embraceable, not "the other," which is how we think of so many who choose religious life.

All this brings to mind another singing nun -- Belgium Sr. Jeanine Deckers, who recorded the hit folk song "Dominque," released in 1963 as the Second Vatican Council was underway. The movie of her remarkable career came out in 1966, bookending with the song of the high-mark years of the council. In many ways, she became the face of a changing church back then -- she played guitar, sounded a lot like Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins, and made everyone see a new side of what religion can mean. 

Now, here comes Sister Cristina, another nun who, in her own way, is helping shape how the church is seen, just like a man in St. Peter's seeking a shift. 

In grammar school, I had a guitar-strumming, singing nun as a teacher -- Sister Maryann introduced us to music from Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, and, yes, Sr. Jeanine Deckers. We also had a sister who worked on programming at the local ABC station and another who loved journalism. It was a time when the church seemed less afraid of "contamination" by secular life and sought connections with pop culture that could bring new relevance to eternal messages of charity, hope and dignity. 

A Sicilian nun with a powerful voice may not be able to do all that, I realize. But what happened on Italian television -- and how that has traveled the world via the Internet -- may actually mark a key moment in the church's fresh approach.

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