Perhaps you have heard about Hell Burns, the “Theology of the Body and Media Literacy Blog of Sister Helena Burns, FSP, media nun.” Did you know that Sister Burns says that Catholic World Report is her favorite Catholic magazine? Although she was sad when the print version stopped, she is ecstatic that it still continues online.
CWR caught up with Sister Burns for an interview about the new movie, Media Apostle, which she helped produce. We had a chance to watch this excellent movie and wanted to talk to her about it.
CWR: Who is Father James Alberione and why should one watch a documentary about him?
Sister Helena Burns: Blessed Father James Alberione is the Church’s new media saint! If you would like to see a modern saint who embraced media technology and created a comprehensive Catholic media strategy and spirituality, MediaApostle.com is for you. There’s an excellent study guide on the website to get a discussion going about the Church and media.
CWR: In what ways was this “media apostle,” who founded the Pauline Family of religious communities, ahead of his time? In what ways does the Church of today still need to catch up to him?
Sister Burns: Father Alberione was way ahead of his time in reaching out to the unchurched and the barely churched in the pews. He saw society shifting on all levels and believed the Church needed to be in a stance of continuously reading the signs of the times and almost anticipate them in order to be of pertinent pastoral service. He felt there was no better way to reach out and reach everyone than through media, specifically what he called the most modern, rapid, and effective means. For him, the Church should be an early adopter of all media technologies, should roll up her sleeves and engage the culture through media.
I would say the Church might need to still catch up with him—even though we are doing so much better with regard to media and media evangelization—by 1) taking media very seriously as an area of formation in catechesis, priestly formation, child/teen/adult/family catechesis—helping individuals and families to get a handle on ever-present media devices, social media, etc., in their lives to utilize it in the best possible way, know when to unplug, etc.; 2) embracing the discipline of “media literacy” at all levels of education; 3) including media as a subject of prayer (praying for media creators and uses and the whole world of media); 4) tithing or spending more money on worthwhile media projects; and 5) stressing the importance of Catholics keeping up with current events from trusted Catholic news sources.
CWR: Is the documentary only available for individuals to view? How can parish groups view it?
Sister Burns: Anyone can watch it at MediaApostle.com online as a rental, or they can download it and own it. There is a complete 90-minute version and a 50-minute version, which might be easier for groups to use (the study guide can be used with either version). The 90-minute version includes Alberione’s thoughts on women, media literacy, “sanctification of technology,” and his edifying old age, and many more interviews with those who knew him. The DVD can also be purchased at the website.
CWR: How did this documentary get made? How long did it take?
Sister Burns: A wing and a prayer! It was done solely with donations and we had many, many miracles along the way. It took seven years because it was worked on only part-time.
CWR: Will there be a sequel?
Sister Burns: No sequel in sight, however we are raising funds to complete a vocation video.
CWR: Are there any innovative saints you know of who are following in the media apostle’s footsteps?
Sister Burns: Certainly Fulton Sheen was a master of the media, as was John Paul II and now Pope Francis! Bishop Robert Barron’s accessible, laid-back style of instantaneous commenting on all kinds of pop culture phenomena from a profoundly Catholic philosophical and theological perspective is probably the closest thing to an Alberione-esque engagement of culture. Before the Internet, Alberione wanted a daily Catholic newspaper reaching every Catholic home. He used every form of media immediately as it was invented and looked forward to what would be invented next. He even predicted the Internet in the 1960s (he died in 1971) when he said: “Someday, we will get our newspapers through the phone wires.” There are so many excellent and innovative Catholic media outlets now, I don’t want to favor any of them, but Relevant Radio is pretty amazing! You can listen online 24/7 and be kept up to date on world news and Church news, hear authors and experts, learn about your Faith as well as other practical issues. I use the app even in Canada and their podcasts have the easiest interface I’ve ever used.
CWR: In what ways do you use the media, both in your apostolate and in your daily interaction with our global world?
Sister Burns: Personally, I’m a big fan of social and digital media, particularly Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blogging, Viber, etc. I have met the most incredible people around the world in a matter of seconds. I get my initial breaking news through social media/Internet, and then I deepen my understanding with print subscriptions. I often just start tweeting Theology of the Body principles and conversations and then am able to point people to more resources…. Much of the vocation work we do is done online—before and after the young women meet with us. It’s a great way to keep in contact.
CWR: In what ways can prayer be integrated with media use? Isn’t media a distraction that is disruptive to a contemplative frame of mind?
Sister Burns: I personally don’t use devices for prayer although many of our Sisters do. I don’t think there’s necessarily a need to use media devices or to seek out ways to use them in prayer. I think we need to pray about and for media and about and for our media use. Father Alberione created a whole prayer book called Prayers of the Pauline Family that includes many prayers for the media. In these prayers he also instructs us how to approach our media use. Father Alberione really thought of everything. We’ve just made this prayer book—in an adapted form—available to the public.
I don’t believe that media—even if we use it heavily at work, life, ministry—has to be disruptive of a contemplative mindset. A contemplative mindset is foundational to our lives. It comes first. Contemplation isn’t something we do, something we turn on and turn off. It’s a whole way of being. If we don’t put prayer and a contemplative approach to life (which can be done in the midst of the craziest busyness) first, then our media use can also be chaotic. And if we don’t have a strategy for using media in our lives (because we’ve never taken the time to step back and create one), we do run the risk of having it disrupt and disturb us in many ways. But if we are disciplined and use even media itself in a contemplative way (“make everything a subject of meditation”—Alberione), then we are in charge. We are in control, and media is just folded into the bigger picture of our life with God.
CWR: When young people discern vocations these days, do you see media concerns being part of that discernment at all?
Sister Burns: Absolutely. If a young woman is thinking of religious life, the first thing she’ll probably do is go to YouTube and watch vocation stories and check out congregations. She’ll also go to vocation aggregator websites to check out a bunch of orders at once. There are even websites that “match” women with orders! They’ll also look for when you are holding retreats (we always have a vocation retreat going on somewhere in the USA or Canada) or even just say “hi” when they find an individual sister online. Some girls “lurk” and watch us interacting with each other (they’re very intrigued how sisters communicate with each other: joking, sharing information and photos, inviting people to events, praying for each other’s families, etc.), and when they see we’re approachable and “relatable,” it gives them the courage to make contact. The “Imagine Sisters” movement is all over the Internet promoting religious vocations in a fun way. They even have T-shirts: “One Sister Can Change the World.”
CWR: Where do you think leadership in the new evangelization may be found? To which contemporary role models would you direct young people?
Sister Burns: I think we can look to our pastors and shepherds first! We have so many good priests and bishops who give us great direction. There are wonderful organizations for young people today that were totally non-existent when I was growing up: Life Teen, pro-life organizations, new ways of helping the poor, etc. I personally believe that the Theology of the Body is a huge part of the New Evangelization and the “New Catechesis.” People mistakenly think it’s all about sex or marriage prep but it is so, so much more than that. It’s the answer to all the mistaken ideologies of the day because it’s St. John Paul II’s “adequate” anthropology of the whole human person, body and soul. Theology of the Body is for “every body” and there are great places to get trained in it: the Theology of the Body Institute, Ruah Woods, Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, Chastity.com. The Catholic Church is taking the issues of our day very seriously and providing amazing pastoral care, for the same-sex attracted, for those struggling with porn or sexual addictions, and more. I really believe that half the battle of getting people help is simply letting them know that these incredible organizations exist! Another important use of media!