The Nun Who Got Addicted to Twitter

Using social media to spread the word of God
Sister Helena Burns, as seen in her profile picture on Facebook and Twitter (Courtesy of Helena Burns)

“My superior is a gamer." Sister Helena Burns said, laughing. "You know you’re a media nun when your superior is a gamer." 

You might not expect nuns to be experts on Twitter, Facebook, and multi-player video games, but Burns defies all expectations. With 13,790 Twitter followers and counting, the Daughter of St. Paul calls herself a "media nun": A woman religious with a calling to communicate the word of Christ, in any way she can.

And yes, there is a gamer-superior in her convent.

“She has this souped-up computer," Burns continued. "She gets her own little ministry out there. Once people get to know she’s a nun, they have questions, or they ask for prayers. But you do have to clean up your language when Sister Irene’s out there."

I imagine Sister Irene sitting in front of a sleek desktop with neon LED backlights, wearing her bright yellow Grado headphones and concentrating intensely on a multi-player RPG. It's a funny image—there's such a symbolic disconnect between the stereotypical idea of a nun and a basement-dwelling teenager who loves World of Warcraft. That's what's so fascinating about these sisters and their order: They defy stereotypes about who participates in Internet culture, and how.

So how does a nun use social media? “I try to really keep up with the comments on my blog, and also Twitter and Facebook," Burns told me. "I’m also on Instagram and Vine a little bit. How I do it is during the day, while I’m doing my other work, I’ll keep zipping over to social media." In other words, the social-media habits of a nun sound exactly like the social-media habits of any college student, office worker, or otherwise regular human. 

The difference is in tone and intention. Burns pointed me toward the Facebook page "Imagine Sisters," where young women discuss the possibility of joining a religious order. ("It's becoming a 'thing' to say 'I'm in discernment,'" Burns notes.) All over the page, there are goofy pics and frequent assertions that #nunsrock. Witness:

The caption reads: "Hang in there! Lent is already halfway over! We pray that your Lent has been full of His grace." (Franciscan Sisters/Imagine Sisters/Facebook)

In certain social-media circles, earnestness is anathema. Using #blessed, for example, would involve at least three layers of irony: One to mock the serious use of hashtags; one to mock religiosity; and one to mock the serious use of a hashtag to approximate religiosity. Not so for Burns.

"Every time I try a bit of sarcasm, it never works. They can't hear your voice, they can't see your face—it's bad enough in real life, so I don't do it online."

This fits with her larger purpose for using social media in general: It's a way to evangelize. “I want to use the latest, most modern, most efficacious media and media technology to reach the greatest number of people with the holy spirit,” she said. Her order was founded in 1915 by the Italian priest Giacomo Alberione, explicitly for this purpose: He saw a need for the Church to start using media more effectively. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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