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John DoughertyJune 14, 2024
Sister Act (1992). Photo by Touchstone Pictures via IMDb.

On the morning of June 14, Whoopi Goldberg was among a group of comedians who met with Pope Francis. This was Goldberg’s second time meeting the pope, following an audience last fall. Goldberg described that meeting as “remarkable” and mentioned that the pope is “a bit of a fan” of her 1992 comedy “Sister Act,” directed by Emile Ardolino and written by Paul Rudnick. Maybe that’s because Deloris Van Cartier, Goldberg’s character in the film, does exactly what the Holy Father wants all Catholics to do: She helps to create a more inclusive, open church.

In the film, Deloris starts as a singer at a Nevada casino, dissatisfied with her career and her affair with her married mobster boss, Vince (Harvey Keitel). Vince is “Catholic” enough that he won’t get a divorce, but those scruples don’t extend to his affair nor to his shady business dealings. Deloris witnesses Vince’s goons murder an informant and she runs to the police for protection. They devise a supposedly foolproof plan to keep her hidden until the trial: Disguise her as a nun at the convent of St. Katherine Parish in San Francisco.

St. Katherine’s is a financially strapped parish in a rundown neighborhood, and only a handful of people bother to come to Mass in the dilapidated church. The formidable Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) keeps her nuns cloistered, believing that the world has become too dangerous for active ministry. Deloris (now “Sister Mary Clarence”) initially chafes against the convent’s restrictions, but that changes when she’s tasked with improving the nuns’ flailing choir. She helps the choir find some soul, which sends ripples of change through the convent and the community. But with Vince still hunting for her, will Deloris live long enough to put on a special concert for the visiting pope? It’ll take a miracle.

“Sister Act” came out about midway between Vatican II and the first sessions of the Synod on Synodality, and it embodies the welcoming spirit of both, and the vision of a church willing to go out into the street. When Deloris’ new-and-improved choir first sing at Mass (an upbeat version of “Hail Holy Queen” that involves gospel claps and theatrical vocals), people from the block begin to wander into the church, muttering the words that many pastors pray to hear: “What’s going on in there?” Soon the pews are packed. Is that to say that the secret to evangelization is a jazzy Mass?

Not at all: Deloris succeeds because she understands life beyond the convent walls, the troubles and complications of everyday people. Inspired by her, the nuns begin to go out into the community, building a playground and forming relationships with the lost souls drifting along their graffiti-covered street.

None of this changes the church’s core message, or waters it down to make it more palatable. In fact, it amplifies it. St. Katherine’s is still a church. And by the end of the film it’s a church that has, as Pope Francis said, “the smell of the sheep.”

As Catholics around the world discern what evangelization should look like in this day and age, perhaps we should take a lesson from this early ’90s Disney comedy. Mother Superior learns that you can’t live out the Gospels by walling yourself off from the world. If the world seems hopeless and inhospitable to the Good News, maybe that means we need to find new ways to preach it. Like the nuns of St. Katherine’s, we need to find ways to communicate the joy and beauty of our faith, through acts of charity, words of hope, and, yes, spirited music.

“Sister Act” is streaming on Disney+.
Join the discussion about ‘Sister Act’ and other films at the Catholic Movie Club Facebook Group.

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