Suor Cristina Rocks Madonna

Suor Cristina Scuccia is an Italian nun who stunned Italy (and at one remove, the world) with her powerful singing voice.  (A Youtube playlist of her songs from the The Voice can be found here.)   She has now released her first single since winning the competition:  a cover of Madonna’s Like a Virgin:

The result is quite stunning, turning the song into an extended meditation on the singer’s own religious vocation.   The video juxtaposes Suor Cristina singing in ways that express rapturous prayer with images of the churches of Venice, reinforcing her Italian, Catholic identity.  (One of the things which made her such a success was that even while belting out rock and pop tunes, she never pretended to be other than she was:  a nun in a sensible habit who took her faith and her vocation seriously.)  It both captures the raw sexuality of the original while at the same time transforming and spiritualising it.

For readers unfamiliar with the original song, it can be found here.   It is worth comparing the two videos.  The original is also filmed in Venice, though much more use is made of the canals and bridges (and the occasional palazzo) than of churches or other religious architecture.  However, though secondary and often ambiguous, Catholic imagery does appear.   Fr. Andrew Greeley, the American sociologist (and occasional gadfly) argued persuasively that Madonna’s art was infused with, as he put it, a Catholic sensibility.  (See, for instance, his detailed analysis of Madonna’s Like a Prayer.)  I think some evidence for this comes from the fact that Suor Cristina is able to reinterpret the song so easily:  if there was not already a Catholic substrate to the lyrics, it would take a great deal more work, including revisions, to make it into a Catholic song.   Nevertheless, I would not push too deep a reading onto Madonna:  it is only in the hands of Suor Cristina that a deeper, vibrantly sensual and spiritual meaning of the lyrics has been found.

Suor Cristina, in an interview with L’Avvenire, a publication of the Italian Church, described her motivation and interpretation of the song as follows:

I chose it. With no intention to provoke or scandalize. Reading the text, without being influenced by previous interpretations, you discover that it is a song about the power of love to renew people. To rescue them from their past. And this is the way that I wanted to interpret it. For this reason we have transformed this song from the pop-dance piece which it was, into a romantic ballad, a bit like the ones by Amos Lee. Something more similar to a lay prayer, than to a pop piece.

(Hat tip to Deacon Greg Kendra for this quote and the following one.)  There has already been some response in the blogosphere.  Leticia Adams gives a powerful interpretation of the song in terms of her own life, in which she found redemption from the slut-shaming (my words, not hers) that made her feel like “damaged goods.”

After my life living in slutville, most of which was also lived with the mind of a fundamental protestant voice telling me how impure I was, it was very hard to me to understand that I was still good.  Not in my actions, but in my being. God created me good. Not just to be good. There was no way that I could ever earn or work for His forgiveness. It is a Grace. Confession is about healing, not about earning anything. It is about taking personal responsibility for the things that I am responsible for,  hearing about the things that I am not responsible for and so that the words of forgiveness can  enter my ears and heal my heart.

This post was triggered by a more mixed response (mostly questioning the artistic merit) at Barefoot and Pregnant.  My colleague, Mark Silk, gives a brief analysis, drawing a brief but interesting parallel with Suoer Sourire, a Belgian nun who came to prominence during the Second Vatican Council.   The sedevacantist website Novus Ordo Watch, perhaps predictably, reacts badly.   (Sidenote:  I had thought that “Trigger warnings” were the domain of left/liberal academics, but one appears in this article.)  A similar response is given by a blogger who is decidedly opposed to Pope Francis.  A parody (in Italian) has already appeared.  (Unfortunately, my Italian is not up to giving even a rough translation.)

In a nutshell:  I like this version of the song, and I like Suor Cristina, both as a musician and as a representative of Catholicism.   She captures the best of what I think the new evangelization is called to do:  engage with the world in a language it can understand, while moving the world closer to Christ.  In this I think she mirrors on a broader stage the work of Fr. Michel-Marie in the slums of Marseilles.

What do you think of the song and of Suor Cristina?

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  • Agellius

    Meh.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Could you be a little more specific? :-)

      • Agellius

        I don’t mean it’s terrible, it just doesn’t do much for me. I think there could be better, less trite ways of making the point she says she is trying to make (not that I claim I could do better myself). Also I feel the recording itself drags a bit. I’m not condemning it, it’s just not to my taste.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Fair enough: all tastes are, in the end, tastes. Thanks for clarifying.

  • http://pellegrinosangirolamo.wordpress.com J. S. Sebastiano P.

    I’m not familiar with the song in the first place, but the sensuality of it was palpable.
    I suppose this helps the argumentation that secular love songs can be converted into prayer (although perhaps not always, and the lyrics may sometimes be awkward).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree, not all secular love songs will work. As I said, I think this points to something in Madonna’s lyrics—and so in her world-view—that was informed by her Catholic upbringing.

      • http://pellegrinosangirolamo.wordpress.com J. S. Sebastiano P.

        I read only the first page or so of Fr. Greeley’s book on Catholic sensibilities (mostly in art?) – the title escapes me – but it seems that there really can be a sacramentality – an “earthiness” – to work of Catholic artists.
        I wondered recently, if/how this affects Asian Catholic artists (as opposed to Western artists) such as Korean singer BoA… Though that is a question for another time/place perhaps…

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I had never heard of BoA: thanks for the reference! It really would be interesting to see how these ideas of Greeley apply in a non-Western setting. Anyone know any references?

          For those interested, here is a link to BoA’s first English hit:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLnr2u_nj10

      • Agellius

        David:

        “informed by her Catholic upbringing”

        I do see your point there.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I liked it.

    God bless

  • http://pellegrinosangirolamo.wordpress.com J. S. Sebastiano P.

    Reblogged this on Pellegrino and commented:
    Talking with David Cruz-Uribe over at Vox Nova in the comment section of his post on Suor Cristina’s rendition of “Like a Virgin” – does anyone have resources on “Catholic Culture” affecting the work of non-Western Catholic (even non-practicing) artists?

  • Julia Smucker

    I wasn’t sure it would work, but I just watched the video and was pleasantly surprised: she really does make it prayerful and meditative. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s something I would want to hear in church, but I like her interpretation.

  • Stuart K.

    Why not in church? “Round yon virgin, mother and child.” Isn’t church the place to celebrate virginity?

    I think this is great. It would be interesting to see the video intersperse some quotes from St. Theresa or Julian or Norwich or John Donne about the sensual love of God. Maybe a frame or two of Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      Well, the song doesn’t celebrate virginity, it actually celebrates the loss of virginity, or the moment when virginity is lost. The singer doesn’t feel “like a virgin,” she feels “like a virgin touched for the very first time.”

      The Church has never celebrated the loss of virginity.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Except of course for the great emphasis in marriage law on the consummation of the marriage, perhaps.

  • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

    This video combines two things I do not like: the song “Like a Virgin” (not my favorite Madonna song) and “O what a (super hot boy)friend I have in Jesus” spirituality (NOT helpful at all.)

    That being said, I liked it better than I thought I would. I don’t like it, I’m just surprised that I don’t hate it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      This is the best negative review I have ever read! For my benefit, and for the benefit of my son Kiko (who just reacted “WHAT?” to your comment) could you give some examples of “what a hot boyfriend I have in Jesus spirituality”?

      • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

        There is a single by the group Mercy Me called “Here with Me,” where a man sings,

        “Caught up in the wonder of your touch,
        Here in this moment, I surrender to your love.”

        There’s a common theme among Christian pop music (which is one of the many reasons I cannot listen to it.).

        Jars of Clay had a hit song called “Love Song For A Savior,” with the refrain, “I want to fall in love with you,” and there’s a popular worship song called “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and Sonicflood had a song called “I want to know you,” and it includes the line, “I want to touch you.”

        (Intriguingly enough, all of these songs were sung by men.)

        There is also “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.”

        Basically, if I could sing the song about a boyfriend and have it still make sense, then it qualifies as an example in my opinion.

        I know that the kind of Song of Songs imagery and the idea of a person being wedded to Christ goes back to the earliest days of the Church. I’m not surprised that it resonates with Sour Christina. I just don’t find it helpful to my spiritual life. There are a lot of other images that I find helpful (Christ the King, Christ as a Teacher, Christ as a Brother, Christ as a Friend, Christ Crucified, Christ Risen, Christ meeting Mary Magdalene, Christ meeting the Samaritan Woman), but Christ as my Boyfriend or Husband is simply not one of them.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks for these. I listen to a lot of CCM, but mostly hard rock and metal, so the female vocalists I prefer are definitely not going for this sort of thing. Now that I think about it, a good example of what you are talking about was from Sister Act, when Whoopi Goldberg has the sisters singing “Talkin’ ’bout my God”.

          Your observation about male singers singing these lines perhaps deserves further investigation, but not by me…..any takers?

  • Stuart K.

    Susan Boyle does something similar with the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here on her latest album. I am an unashamed Boyle fan–she takes some very interesting risks. She also sings Abide With Me alongside Imagine–an interesting contrast! :)

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