Why do videos of singing nuns and tap-dancing priests go viral?

“I think what’s attractive in a video like Sister Cristina’s is the way she embraces rather than attacks pop culture,” the Rev. James McDermott, SJ, who writes about Catholicism and pop culture, told Crux. “We’ve gotten so used to Catholic figures speaking in opposition to cultural phenomenon that the idea of a religious figure instead embracing something from pop culture is unexpected and refreshing, even edgy.”

McDermott, who writes for America magazine, said that both Sister Cristina’s video and the video of the tap-dancing priests show that religious figures can be “happy, normal people. Catholic culture and pop culture ​both ​tend to portray religious figures as solemn, humorless old men. It drives me crazy. Who would even join an organization like that?”

Sister Cristina’s “Like a Virgin” video racked up more than a million and a half YouTube views in just three days. A video of her singing Alicia Keys’ “No One” on the Italian version of TV’s “The Voice” posted in March has more than 62 million views. She ended up winning the competition after several rounds of performances.

A video of dancing priests is also making the rounds this week, with more than a quarter-million views on YouTube.

The Rev. David Rider, 29, of Hyde Park, New York, and the Rev. John Gibson, 28, of Milwaukee, first shot to Internet fame when they were filmed in April during a fundraiser at the North American College, the elite American seminary up the hill from the Vatican.

Rider warmed up the crowd with a lively tap-dance routine, only to be pushed aside by Gibson’s fast-footed Irish step dancing. Soon they were battling it out, trying to impress the crowd.

At the back of the room, journalist Joan Lewis of the Eternal Word Television Network recorded the event and later posted it on YouTube.

Sister Cristina’s story is not unusual – there was another “Singing Nun” who shot to fame in the 1960s and became a worldwide sensation.

Belgian Sister Luc-Gabrielle hit the charts with “Dominique,” a song in French about St. Dominic, the founder of her religious order. Recorded in seven languages, the song hit the Top 10 in 11 countries.

But as Mark Silk writes at Religion News Service, the story of Sœur Sourire, or Sister Smile, includes a tragic ending.

After leaving her convent just a few years after she found fame, “Her singing career faltered. In 1985, she and Annie Pécher, a friend from childhood who became her lover, committed suicide together, citing financial difficulties.”

But the fusion of religiosity and pop culture certainly has its critics.

According to the Rome-based news agency ANSA, Italian bishops blasted Sister Cristina’s victory on “The Voice” as a “reckless and calculated commercial operation.” In an editorial published by the bishops’ news conference, they said, “The public is always intrigued by the devil versus holy water theme, but not even the American nuns in ‘Sister Act’ would have thought of something like this.”

Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic screenwriter, told the Catholic News Agency that Sister Cristina’s decision to make a video singing “Like a Virgin” shows a “lack of thought, seriousness, and decorum that is predictable of so much of our societal and ecclesial life today.”

Nicolosi told CNA that the song was intended to mock the Church, calling it “another reason why this is a weird piece for a Catholic nun to try and repurpose.”

She said pop culture is “never going to be a sphere appropriate to religious” and compared the nun’s cover to “a group of Israeli teenagers suddenly thinking it would be cool to put a swastika on their T-shirts.”

McDermott disagrees.

“People remember ‘Like a Virgin’ as this scandalous song, but its themes – like many of Madonna’s themes – are so Christian,” he said. “Who hasn’t felt like they screwed it all up irreparably and yearn for a fresh start? Certainly not any human beings that I know.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.