The Voice of Italy, Sister Cristina Scuccia, has again startled the world with the release of another one of her pop love song covers, this time Madonna’s scandalous “Like a Virgin.” Covering Madonna’s original video as well, Suor Cristina does her thing on location in Venice. But where Madonna made La Serenissima and its famous canals the stage for encounters with her leonine new lover, Suor Christina appears solo in a city of churches, concluding with the iconic Santa Maria della Salve — dedicated to the original Madonna.
From this — as, indeed, from her debut cover of Alicia Keys’ “No One” — we are bound to conclude that the lover she’s singing about is Christ. As her impossible-to-miss wedding band makes clear, she’s his bride, as are all consecrated sisters. One might call it Roman Catholicism’s own version of non-traditional marriage.
Eroticized expressions of female spirituality are nothing new in Catholicism of course. Bernini’s famous Ecstasy of St. Teresa portrays the Carmelite mystic’s experience of an angel plunging a fiery golden spear into her entrails. Although the modestly clad Cristina shakes her body a bit, it’s that remarkable voice that manifests her passion.
This is a far cry from the last singing nun to achieve worldwide celebrity — Sister Luc-Gabrielle, the Belgian Dominican known as Soeur Sourire, whose song in honor of her order’s founder made it to the top of the charts half a century ago. And yet, there are certain similarities.
Both nuns came on the scene at a time when their Church was figuring out how to acculturate itself to the modern world — Soeur Sourire during the Second Vatican Council and Suor Cristina during Pope Francis’ revival of the spirit of Vatican II. Just as Suor Cristina has made a place for herself in the cadre of contemporary pop idols, the guitar-strumming Soeur Sourire belonged to the folksong army of the day.
And just as their musical styles are up-to-date, their messages speak to the times. The catchy “Dominique,” which Sister Sourire wrote herself, told a Cold War story about a Catholic priest who fights heretics by talking only about God (while fronting for armies that broke heads). Even as she embraces the hyper-sexual culture that has been so neuralgic for her church, Suor Cristina turns it on its head.
Unfortunately, celebrity didn’t work out well for Soeur Sourire. Three years after she became famous she left her convent, becoming by turns critical of church doctrine, then a devotee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Her singing career faltered. In 1985, she and Annie Pécher, a friend from childhood who became her lover, committed suicide together, citing financial difficulties.
One can hope that Suor Cristina finds an easier path.