Faces of Faith: “Media nun” on communication and vocation
(POSTED: 12/31/12) Sister Helena Burns is not your typical nun: She tweets and texts and blogs. She’s on Facebook, YouTube and iTunes. And she’s currently writing and producing a movie.
The self-proclaimed “media nun” lives in Chicago with the Daughters of St. Paul, a Roman Catholic congregation dedicated to evangelization through media. (In Chicago, they run the Pauline Books and Media store at 172 N. Michigan Ave.)
Burns, who studied screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles, is making a documentary on the Rev. James Alberione, the founder of 10 congregations and institutes known collectively as the Pauline Family. Alberione, who died in 1971, was beatified in 2003, which is a step toward sainthood.
While on a Christmas concert tour with the Daughters of St. Paul choir, Burns spoke over the phone with ChicagoCatholicNews.com about her film, the power of media and how she once wanted to be an ornithologist. Here is an edited transcript:
Tell me about your background.
I’m originally from Boston. I feel like Chicago is my second home. It was my first assignment. I love Chicago and I love the Midwest. To me it’s a city of many possibilities. I studied screenwriting at UCLA and through the Act One program, which is like a Christian screenwriters’ boot camp. . . . When I came to Chicago, I started doing this documentary on the life of our founder who was this total media priest. . . .
In our order, Daughters of St. Paul, . . . our mission is to evangelize media and teach people about media and how to use media in their lives. Especially now when we are wired 24 hours a day, we want to use it in a way that humanizes us instead of dehumanizing.
There’s nothing like it in the Church. There are many organizations that are involved or have a media arm, but we were founded only for media. The spirituality is really beautiful. God being the first communicator, there are many ways you can spread the Word of God.
When did you become a nun?
I met God when I was 15 and then he called me shortly after. He called me to be a sister and at first I really didn’t understand what that would entail. I entered the convent at 17.
Were you raised Catholic?
I was a cradle Catholic. I got dragged to Mass every Sunday – hated it. I was all about animals and conservation. I zeroed in on birds in particular and I was going to be an ornithologist. That was the big love of my life. My aunt said to me, ‘You went from saving seals to saving souls!’ It’s amazing. When God wants ya, he gets ya.
How did that happen?
When I first felt called, I met God and it was a lightning bolt experience. And shortly after I felt called to be a sister. Deep in your heart it was like, ‘Be a nun.’ I was like, ‘No!’ I had my whole life planned. I wanted to be a veterinarian. So I had a struggle for two years. There were two wills struggling and there was a lot of uncertainty: Does God really want me to do this? All through this period, I was learning about Father Alberione. I was like, ‘Finally! A saint who understands us modern people!’ I love this man. I love him. He’s not afraid of modernity and technology. He loves it; he embraces it.
Is that why you chose the Daughters of St. Paul?
I looked at a lot of communities, but I thought what better way to bring God into peoples’ lives than through a book or song or magazine or film? You can very directly reach people on a deep level. It’s an art – we are using these arts to communicate with people.
. . . I always loved to write. I loved poetry and music. I saw what a huge influence media had – for the good and for the bad. I thought this was a really good fit for me. . . . The mother house was right in Boston where I lived so I went to visit and it was just so joyful. I wanted to make sure their smiles were real. I hung out with them for a day and realized this was genuine.
Tell me more about your documentary.
We’re working with Spirit Juice Studios . . . and they are based in Chicago. We chose them because they do really, really beautiful artistic work. . . . So it’s a 90-minute documentary, should be out early 2013. We’re getting a Disney composer to do an original score. And we have a lot of video with [Father Alberione]. How many saints do you know where you have lots of video of him? Because we are a media order, they always had cameras out and were always filming [him.]
Father Alberione started us back in 1915 when it really was only the press. Photography and film were just at its infancy. He had a vision by God that the media was going to explode in the 20th century and that the Church had to scoop it up and use it in a fantastic way.
What do you hope people take away from the movie?
First of all we want them to know the life of this amazing media saint. And to let them know that it is possible to have sanctity go together with the latest technology. Not just for holy uses and pondering the word of God, but in our everyday lives. Sometimes we think media and technology have nothing to do with God, that it’s so cold. But we are living in new times today. Even our Christmases have become very technological, but it’s OK. God doesn’t change. Love doesn’t change. . . . We don’t have to think God lived somewhere in the Middle Ages and that we are barreling ahead without Him.
We also want them to learn what [Father Alberione’s] vision, strategy and spirituality for media is.
How would you describe his strategy and vision?
It really was about sanctifying technology and balancing our lives and having our priorities straight. Yes, use all the latest technology but know what comes first: God comes first, relationships come first. You don’t use media to replace face-to-face communication and relationships. . . .
He was also very much about thanking God for all of these wonderful technologies that brings us together. He was always looking forward to the latest and fastest means. For preaching to the masses, he wanted what was going to reach the greatest number of people and have the greatest effect.
His strategy was to use it all, and use it in the best possible way. In other words, we are in charge. We are not in victims of the media. We don’t let the media control our lives. . . . It’s a media culture we are living in so you have to approach the media as a culture now. It permeates every aspect of our lives. . . .
There are three sacred places where we do not need media. Church, the dinner table and married peoples’ bedrooms. We don’t need screens. We don’t need distractions. You don’t want to be communicating to people who are physically present with us that they are not as important as the people online or the sports scores.
Where do you think the Catholic Church stands in terms of media progressiveness?
I think the Catholic Church is just starting to come into its own now in evangelization. If people are searching today, they are searching online. Especially young people. They are all about Tumblr and texting.
The pope, he is asking priests, are you looking for the lost sheep online? Are you bringing your priestly heart into cyberspace? . . . I would say on the whole, the church is getting there. The Protestants have always been good with media but we are starting to wake up and get there. . . .
The average Catholic in the pews is going with the flow and using the media the same way everybody does. . . . You can’t have little kids go online unsupervised. This is powerful stuff. We have the whole world at our fingertips – good, bad, it’s all there. We have to be very intentional about it. I think we need to educate parents. . . .
We put such a stress on literacy for kids. What about visual literacy? What about video games? Do we understand how those are constructed and what they are doing to our brains? We want to be able to be literate in all forms. Know how to edit video, know how to use an iPhone. . . .
I’ve talked to families who say we threw our TV out the window. Then when the kid reaches 18, they go hog-wild or they go to college and they are not prepared. They are not media literate. They haven’t learned to see the good or see the bad. . . . Media literacy and critical thinking skills empower people.
Faces of Faith is an occasional feature on ChicagoCatholicNews.com. This interview was conducted by Katie Drews. To contact her, email email@example.com.