Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Getting to Know the Media NunGetting to Know the Media Nun

Getting to Know the Media Nun

Sister Helena Burns has a certificate in bird biology, an effervescent love of hockey and a significant Twitter following. Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi sits down with her to learn more about life as a Daughter of St. Paul. 

Hannah Marazzi
12 minute read

This interview has been condensed for ease of readability. 

Convivium: I first heard of you when someone referenced you as “the media nun.” Take us back to the beginning. Where does your story begin? 

Sister Helena Burns: I'm from Boston, born and raised. We went to Mass every Sunday. My parents didn't talk about faith a lot, but they were deeply religious and their lives were guided by Catholicism. I didn't buy it. I gave up on God and religion in first grade. I was done with that. I've always been a very cynical, philosophical, person. If you want it to get to me, you have to make sense first and Catholicism did not make sense, so I was done. 

Flash forward and I was searching as a teenager. I loved animals and nature and the environment, conservancy and ecology. Everybody knew that's what Helena was going to do with her life: she takes care of little baby animals that got injured, wild animals and wild birds. And my real love was birds, so I started studying ornithology. I took a mail-order course back before the Internet from Cornell University, which has an incredible bird sanctuary and ornithology program. I got my certificate in bird biology when I was 14, I think.

I was really, really searching and... I'll just say it in one sentence: I met God, then four days later, he asked me to be a nun. He called me to be a nun, like no moss grows under His sandals.

C: What brought you into the Daughters of St. Paul specifically?

SHB: I liked many different communities. I was willing to do anything God wanted me to do, but I didn't understand that God gives us powers because he wants us to use them and he may start asking us to do something outside of our tool kit of talents. I boiled it down to either Mother Teresa's sisters or to the Daughters of Saint Paul.

Mother Teresa actually met our Mother Paula, who founded us in North America – we're originally founded in Italy – and she said, "You feed the soul, and we feed the body." In Mother Teresa's work, she's also feeding the soul, but not so much directly, whereas we are directly helping in intellectual life, family life, spiritual life, prayer life, interior life. 

Through the media, any form of media, we run in 50 countries all over the world: Catholic book stores, radio, film, internet, digital media literacy, and then putting the faith component with media literacy. Anything we do, so to spread the love of God, the word of God, just help people go deeper, help people become holy. It’s very diversified but our mission has to be evangelization through media; we've been founded to evangelize with media.

Our founder really wanted us to use the latest means, the latest technologies, not just stuck on one technology. As John Paul II said, he saw the Internet when it was still fairly young and he said, “Bring the face of Christ to the internet.” 

Anyone, as a Christian, is supposed to incarnate Christ there and be a witness to Him and, as Pope Francis said, that sometimes isn't just blasting religious messages at people, but it's availability. Can you be available to somebody who has a question, to somebody who is hurting, somebody who is angry at the Church? Are you out there and willing to listen and, sort of, accompany people?

C: Could you tell us a bit about your spirituality and work?

SHB: We have a very beautiful, rich spirituality based on Saint Paul, so we're called Daughters of Saint Paul, of Saint Paul the Apostle or Pauline, meaning of the Apostle Paul. Our founder chose him as the patron for the whole Pauline family because Blessed James Alberione, our founder, founded 10 congregations, not just one.

He founded the Priests and Brothers first in 1914 and they do the same work we do, except they are men. He founded us a year later, Daughters of Saint Paul. When he beatified our founder, Pope John Paul II said, "This is the first apostle of the New Evangelization." John Paul II coined that phrase, because it hadn't happened yet, but Alberione was way ahead of his time in a lot of ways.

The Church shouldn't be catching up all the time, I don't mean to the ways of the world and the cultural values, but in the way the world would use media in particular. So, we shouldn't be lagging way behind in these outdated modes.

Otherwise, for our young people today, if it's not beautiful and aesthetic and you're not using the right typefaces and using good graphic design, you have done damage to your message. In other words, you don't care enough about your message to make it look good, or you think they look good, but you have no idea that it doesn't. If it doesn't look beautiful, they don't think it's true; which is really a big insight, because the beautiful, the true, and the good are all of a peace.

C: You are active on social media, with over 35,000 followers on Twitter. Your tweets cover everything from Theology of the Body to hockey. Would you share your vision for social media? 

SHB: Water finds its own level. Birds of a feather flock together. You're going to find the most incredible, sincere people out there who are just there to connect with other people. I think the vast majority is that. Now, yeah, it's being used as a political tool. There are fake news problems. There are all kinds of problems. There's porn. There's identity stealing. There's bots talking to you that aren't even real people and you don't even know that. There's predators. There's all kinds of stuff, but I think the good outweighs the bad.

I still have a very positive vision for social media. But I know that it could turn on all of us at any moment. Like, dang it, I got a new smartphone and I wasn't really thinking, and I gave them my fingerprint to open my phone up, because it's easy, right? Easy and convenient. We have Alexa, because it's easy and convenient. Meanwhile, all of our conversations are being recorded. 

We know this… Google says, "Yeah, we're recording your conversations so we can train our AI better to serve you better." But what if the government subpoenas that because you voted for the wrong totalitarian person? You know. People say, "Oh, I'm not a criminal. I don't care." You should care a lot about that. 

Maybe I'm naïve. I know all the dangers, but I still feel like I have met the most stellar people through Twitter, especially, and we've been able to help each other. We've been able to meet up in real life more than once, and I have these fast friends now that I met on Twitter.

C: What would you say to people now regarding social media and its current climate?

SHB: I would just say the good outweighs the bad. Be part of the conversation, but don't let it take away your humanity. Don't live your life in virtual reality. Use it moderately. Use it in moderation. Use responsibly. Because why wouldn't you want to be part of this worldwide conversation? I don't know.

C: Your book, He Speaks to You, is for young women who are discerning their life’s call. Are there common issues you see in discernment for young people today?

SHB: What I find to be the overarching issue or problem today with discernment is fear. I have never encountered so much fear. Sometimes it's not evident. It's well-hidden, but the idea of actually committing to something for your entire life is absolutely terrifying to the younger generations today, which is understandable. Our world is not a very committed world. I would just say what John Paul II and Jesus said, "Do not be afraid. You can trust God.” And yes, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.

There's a translation in the Bible that says, "God is whole-hearted toward the whole-hearted." Even in our prayer life or our ordinary life, we're always hedging our bets. We don't want to totally surrender to the Lord or give everything over to him. Maybe it's a fear of, "I can't do it. I won't be able to do it." Because we're so tightly controlled, we plan every second of our lives. We want to see the next 15, 20 years out, and we want to be able to plan that ourselves. 

C: What advice would you give to a young person discerning their vocation?

SHB: Discernment is prayer. It's a relationship with the Lord. It's not a technique. I find young people are like, "Just tell me what to do. I can do A, B and C, and then I'll know. Right?" Or, "In two years, I will know. In two years, I want to be married. In three years, I want to have my first child." Those things are beyond our control. 

I would say just remember that these three things: vocation, the will of God, and salvation are not things. They're not things that we can grab and have and say, "I have it now." All three of those things are our relationship with the Lord, an ongoing relationship with the Lord, and it unfolds in the moment. We can't force it. And he wants us to have it. He wants us to know his will. He wants us to be saved. It's his will. He has a saving will.

C: A quick scroll through your social feeds tells me that you often choose to communicate with joy, energy, and humour. What advice would you give to those who are discouraged about the state of contemporary dialogue? 

SHB: I think it goes by your temperament. Just be yourself. Try to be as transparent as you can. So, don't put on a face like the, "I have it all together." Like on Instagram, you have to look perfect and beautiful. Don't do that. Be yourself. There's a saying that, "Those who are uncertain of their God are afraid to laugh in His presence." If we're uncertain of the truth, then we have to defend it tooth and nail and shove it down people's throats and be angry. 

Don't let them push your buttons, but if you're somebody who gets your buttons pushed, you need to know that about yourself. And just don't answer in a heated moment. Either leave the conversation, or come back when you're cooled off, because you're only going to do damage. But I think people in real life… They don't understand that, when Jesus said don't judge, he meant we don't judge people's interior motivations. We can absolutely judge external actions, objective actions. We don't know the person's heart. But people judge people's intentions all the time. Can you see in their hearts? Is there hate in that heart just because I disagree with you? 

I had to figure out where I wanted to focus on social media, and I do too many things on social media. Put it in your profile, in your bio. Let people know who you are and what you're going to be tweeting about. So, I would say I tweet God, Theology of the Body, media literacy, and then, of course, hockey. And I'll throw in nun stuff.

C: What do you think about the aspect of virtual community on social media?

SHB: If you put a prayer intention out there, you'll get, like, a thousand hits. Strangers are like, "I'm going to bring it to my prayer group. I just said a rosary for you." You're like, "You did? I don't even know you." So, why do people want to help? People are good. People do want to help each other. It just blows me away. The disembodied mystical body of Christ. That's what I call it. Yet those prayers are real. 

Pope Benedict said, "We can't just keep calling cyberspace this purely virtual world. There's real people creating real community out there, doing real things and real actions that have real consequences." So, the word virtual actually means real in appearance and real in effect.

C: You occupy a very interesting space in society. You are a sister, a role which is often understood – correctly or incorrectly – to be more contemplative or less visible. Yet you are a media reviewer, co-producer, and blogger among the many hats that you wear. How do you navigate that challenge? 

SHB: Interestingly, there's a lot of people ... Every so often, they come out online, and they're like, "Sisters shouldn't be online. Sisters and priests tend to their duties, and they're wasting time online." But all of the popes have told us to be online.

We were founded to evangelize with media. In 1915, our founder told us, "Use the fastest, most efficacious means in a mass way." He wanted us to use mass media to reach the greatest number of people and do the greatest amount of good to them, which sounds like utilitarianism, but it isn't, because he also wanted the personal touch to be there. One-on-one evangelization in our bookstores, going out to the parishes, et cetera. So, we do both. We do the online world, and we do in-real-life stuff as well. 

Jesus said, "We're in the world but not of the world." But that doesn't mean you don't care about the world. We care about the world more than anybody because we want the world to be saved. We're here with a graver purpose than anyone else. We're not here to support a family. We're not here to make ourselves famous or make money. We're here to save your soul.

People tell us, "Thank you for your Twitter ministry." I've had people watch how I respond to hostile people, and they're like, "Wow, sister. You really kept your cool, and you're so patient. You're so kind." I'm like, "Well, I'm trying to follow Jesus." So, technology is not a God-free zone, but the golden rule applies. The attitudes apply. Everything applies online. Why would we think it doesn't apply? You know?

I tell young people that a lot too when I talk to them about their media use. This is not a God-free zone. You have to transfer the gospel into virtual reality. The good person you're trying to be here, you have to be online.

C: What do you wish more people understood about religious life? Are there any misconceptions you would like to address? 

SHB: Well, my favourite thing about religious life – and I think this will go for priesthood too probably – is I have to pray. I have to stop everything I'm doing, and it's worked right into my schedule. I call it uni-tasking prayer. It's not multi-tasking prayer like I'm driving and saying the rosary at the same time. I have to stop what I'm doing and go into the chapel and whether it's morning prayer, evening prayer, meditation, Mass, daily, or my hour of adoration or my half-hour personal prayer. 

I just had a conversation with a young lady over the weekend who feels very torn. She can't figure out ... Because she wants to spend her life in contemplation. She wants to save the world. She wants to dedicate all her energies in a single way, and she knows she can't do that if she gets married. 

As Paul says in Corinthians, "The unmarried man can devote himself entirely to the Lord. The married man has to divide himself, necessarily, and the married woman, between pleasing the Lord and pleasing your spouse, and everything else." That's the way it's meant to be. You'll be able to do it, you’ll be fine, and you'll love it if that's your vocation, but consider the beauty of single-heartedness.

There is a freedom within religious life. There's a balance between the individual and the community. I think people are afraid that their personality is going to get obliterated. We have so many options today. We can almost do anything today. And people say, "Oh, religious life would be so constricting, and I won't get to use my talents, and I won't get to do X, Y, and Z." It's like, you know what? I have been so expanded by religious life. I would never have met all these amazing people who open up to me or share their life with me just because I'm a nun.

It's not scary. You will not be obliterated. Think about how much you care about prayer time. And if you're going to get that kind of prayer time in any other lifestyle ... Maybe you can. Maybe you'll work it out that way, but maybe you won't.

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