By Marya Pasciuto
On June 5, 2014, Italy’s edition of the popular talent competition show The Voice ended its season with a big win for a contestant who stands out from her competitors: an Ursuline nun named Cristina Scuccia. Scuccia, affectionately dubbed “suor Cristina” (Sister Cristina), made no attempt to conceal her involvement with the Catholic Church and her passion for God—she performed at every taping in a full habit and even followed up her win with a recital of the Lord’s Prayer, sparking outrage among a small minority of ultra-conservative Catholics who viewed her appearances on The Voice as exhibitionist and sinful.
On the whole, however, audiences in Italy and across the globe fell in love with suor Cristina, habit and all. Her powerful renditions of pop songs like Alicia Keys’s “No One” and Dirty Dancing's “Time of My Life” delighted the show’s judges and boosted her to the top of the competition. Atheist Voice judge and rapper J-Ax was especially taken with suor Cristina; he was moved to tears during her blind audition and became her coach for the season. After suor Cristina’s performance of “No One,” J-Ax proclaimed to her, “If I had met you during Mass when I was a child…I would surely have attended all the [Church’s] functions.”
That a servant of the Church so wholly won over J-Ax—and the 62% majority of Italian viewers who voted for her to win—makes for great television. Pious suor Cristina’s popularity and landslide victory, however, can also be interpreted as a manifestation of the Church’s larger move toward accessibility and modernity—a move that it desperately needed in an increasingly secular world. Led by Pope Francis, the Vatican is enjoying a progressively positive reputation among populations not necessarily affiliated with the Church—or with religion itself.
Pope Francis, chosen as TIME’s Person of the Year in 2013, has been called “The People’s Pope” for his humble style and speeches advocating for acceptance and compassion. The fact that he became pope in the first place is an indication of a new direction for the Catholic Church. As the first South American to take the helm, Argentine Pope Francis’s selection and success suggest a shift in priority in the institution, which obviously has been historically Euro-centric in its selections.
Pope Francis brings a new perspective to the Vatican, giving him a relatively clean slate as a promoter of peace in the Middle East. Following his visit to the Holy Land last month, the pope invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the leaders of Israel and Palestine, respectively, to pray for peace with him at the Vatican. This surprising and, in recent years, unprecedented move helps to establish Pope Francis as a diplomatic facilitator who emphasizes personal connections in his efforts.
Although his peacekeeping measures are certainly important, Pope Francis’ appeal stems largely from his dedication to the common people. He insists on meeting with members of the public during most of his appearances (including his recent trip to Israel) and he has maintained a presence on Twitter since assuming control of the Holy See. By embracing modern culture and communicating with the young, the People’s Pope has made himself (and, by extension, the Vatican) relevant again among a population that previously might have written him off as another old, conservative man.
While he will not directly counter the Church’s official views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion, he has steered the conversation in a direction that appeals more to the masses who have been turned off by the Vatican’s conservatism. In a step away from the typical Vatican decrees regarding conservative social values, Pope Francis prefers to concentrate on the Church’s advocacy for the poor. Forgoing the traditional papal home in favor of a modest guest house, he expresses his sorrow at the suffering of the poor and is quick to remind the world that the rich, according to the Bible, have an obligation to the poor. He makes waves when he addresses social issues as well. Most notably, he responded boldly to the topic of gay Catholics: “Who am I to judge?”
It seems that Pope Francis is committed to ushering in a new era for the Church—an era of personal connection and greater understanding between factions and individuals alike. His touch has caused many secular and even typically anti-Vatican groups to soften their resolve against the Catholic Church—for example, the American LGBT magazine The Advocate named him 2013’s Person of the Year. Suor Cristina’s triumph echoes this growing accessibility that the Church has enjoyed over the past year or so.
After all, Pope Francis and suor Cristina share many traits beyond their common faith. Both figures entered Church life after decidedly secular youths (Pope Francis famously once worked as a nightclub bouncer, and suor Cristina used to sing in a band) and thus brought unique, more universally appealing attitudes to their service. They both have achieved popularity in Italy and across the globe (the official YouTube video of suor Cristina’s “No One” performance has over 50 million views, and the hashtag #BestPopeEver on Twitter speaks for itself) and have captivated populations (like the average reality TV viewers and selfie-takers) that would otherwise happily ignore the Catholic Church’s influence in their daily lives.
The energy of these servants of God is what sets them apart; the world has grown so used to the image of an austere and listless church that a pope who wants to meet the public or a nun who can belt out both gospels and Cyndi Lauper are an overwhelmingly well-received surprise.
Following suor Cristina and Pope Francis’ modern and appealing lead, the Vatican recently tweeted its support for suor Cristina. If the world’s current favorite pope and nun can keep up the good work, the skeptical public might continue to warm towards the Vatican.
Marya Pasciuto is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.