The Nun Who Got Addicted to Twitter

Using social media to spread the word of God
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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. 

"He was the first one to get it," Burns said. "He was not afraid of technology, not afraid of media. For him, there was no dichotomy between God and technology." 

Even though Alberione has been dead for more than four decades, Burns seems to have reinvented this theory for the social-media age. To her, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram are like many other regions of the world: Some people are part of Christian communities; some people are part of secular communities; and some people straddle both. Evangelizing online is just like evangelizing anywhere else: You build communities animated by Christian values, which exist alongside every other community. Snarky sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed and Reddit might seem like they represent the unified culture of the Internet, one that seems incompatible with Christian values. But, of course, Burns disagrees. Where I see snark, she sees a sacrament.

"We should be the best at this, because as Catholics, we believe in sacraments. We believe God is constantly working through matter, that icons can be sacred." In other words, the Internet isn't just a vortex of rage; like everything else, it's a medium through which God can reach the world.

"Do you see yourself as being in the web, but not of the web?" I asked her.

"Hmm," she replied. "Well, that's Jesus: in the world, but not of the world. But it's almost impossible to be on the web and not be part of it—and I want to be. I want to be part of the world that's conformed to God."

This isn't necessarily how the rest of the Church sees social media, though. "I think we have a long way to go in putting more funds there," she said. "The Catholic Church is very good at education, tending the poor, soup kitchens, supporting families in need, missionary work. But when it comes to media, we don't value it enough."

Although Pope Francis has developed a huge Twitter following in his year as the Bishop of Rome, Burns uses the word "media" in a much more totalizing sense: She thinks the Church should strive to be a much bigger part of the overall information culture. This includes Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, but also news, books, and music. And as a former UCLA student of screenwriting, she thinks film can be particularly influential.

"Catholics don't look for Christian entertainment," she observed. "They don't look for God in their entertainment—it's like this peeled off part of our lives. But we assimilate much more easily when we're entertained."

This makes it seem like being a nun on social media is at once totally mundane and totally radical. It's about being a normal, 21st-century American who Instagrams silly selfies and tweets about Noah, sharing tiny bits of an everyday life. But it's also about using every means available to reach people with the word of Christ, incorporating God into every part of life. This, Burns says, is how the work of modern evangelization is done.

"After all, if we don't go out into this world, what are we doing?"

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

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