Inside NunTok, the holiest place on the internet

The nuns have logged on.

ByDarcie Wilder
Originally Published: 

Netscapes is a monthly column wherein Darcie Wilder explores the niche internet communities that have somehow managed to resist the flattening effect of an online world dominated by the algorithms. Read last month’s installment, on Farmfluencers, here.

In May 2018 C.E., Pope Francis decreed the nuns could officially log on. The announcement was an expansion of an earlier document from 2016 that accepted and acknowledged that “contemplative communities,” even if marked by a life of solitude and silence, could at least recognize the existence of the web. The 2018 update was reportedly confusing for some and insulting to others, but it essentially tells nuns how to abide by the original 2016 document. In the follow-up, Pope Francis noted a few guidelines: avoid wasting time, make sure use is intentional, and don’t let it distract from your duties. Some thought the warnings were a bit rich considering the pope is a known poster, tweeting often and, honestly, quite good.

The latest 2018 edict is one tiny part of a large, ever-present discord over how a centuries-old institution handles the inexorable march of time. Within the past few decades, an organization of liberal-leaning Catholic nuns has been vocally supporting a more progressive agenda: gay rights, access to healthcare, canceling global debt to the World Bank and IMF, gendered segregation of the priesthood, other stuff you might expect. When Pope Francis took over the Popemobile, there was a question of whether he would continue finger-wagging the nuns like his conservative predecessor, or open the door to a more liberal and feminine stewardship. He chose to uphold the scolding of the nuns.

Since that kerfuffle, the Pope has established himself solidly in favor of certain liberal causes: addressing the climate crisis, access to healthcare, universal basic income, and stopping firearms sales are just a few of the bombs he dropped in an October speech. (He remains quite hardline about the abortion thing, but he has offered forgiveness to those who get them, which is a pretty big step forward for the church.)

It seems they're more just supporting the general concept of global girlbosses, agreeing that women should lead … things. But not mass!

Questioning how to remain true to the foundations of the faith while adjusting to, and living in, the world is an evergreen topic for Catholics. Just last month, the church announced its support of "women’s leadership," which might seem like it supports women’s leadership within its organization, but upon closer inspection, it seems they're more just supporting the general concept of global girlbosses, agreeing that women should lead … things. But not mass! Still, the Pope did attempt to increase women’s say in the church when he expanded the roles and responsibilities of women during Mass just this last January (Priesthood, so far, is still off the table.) And earlier this month, he appointed a woman as secretary general of Vatican City.

As a raised-yet-super-lapsed Catholic, it seems to me that this push/pull points toward a grappling with forward-thinking futurism and the traditionalism that serves as the foundation to most legacy organizations. It's also worth mentioning Catholicism’s increasing presence in The Discourse, from the New York Times' coverage of "weird Christians," growing admiration of anarcho-Catholic Dorothy Day, and the seemingly never-ending discussion of how leftists can be religious and how weird it is when punk teenagers turn to religion. Not to mention "TradCath," which we don't even have time to get into, but here, here, here, and here. Yeah, I don't know either.

This is all to say: the nuns have logged on.

Much digital ink has already been spilled about NunTok, and with good reason. TikTok is likely the best social media platform for people who aren't online all day. The algorithm picks things up, making viralty easier than other platforms that would require more finesse. TikTok memes are an easy access point to align the format with your circumstance. Popular genres of NunTok videos include convent pranks, memes like this viral "This or That challenge," little jokes, and whatever this and this is, snippets of their lives and everyday nun stuff or day-in-the-life vlogs, and answers to questions, especially about how they entered the faith. Like most Catholicism, a lot of the content is somewhat obsessed with death. Sometimes they just pray, do some Catholicism, or dance. Sometimes they peel carrots or make communion wafers. Sometimes they leave the convent.

Much of the attention falls on Daughters of Saint Paul, a Boston convent with a few videos and Sister Bethany, FSP, a starlet with 190k followers on her personal account. The wider organization of Daughters of Saint Paul runs Pauline Books and Media, a chain of bookstores and an e-commerce store with children’s books, manga-style saint biographies, prayer books, bibles, rosaries, journals, etc. Eight of the nuns have written a "collective memoir," Millennial Nuns: Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life in a World of Social Media, for "any reader looking to discover more about balancing faith with the modern age."

One of the biggest breakout online nuns is Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP of the Boston Daughters of Saint Paul. Previously profiled in the New York Times, she is most known for popularizing the "memento mori," a practice of meditating on the inevitability of one’s death for present gratitude and perspective. The Latin phrase itself translates sometimes to "remember your death," and other times to "remember you have to die," and sometimes, "remember you must die." You get the idea. This endeavor has led to her own section on the Pauline Books website, with bracelets, rosaries, a daily desk calendar, advent companion, prayer book, and Lenten devotional.

Last month NunTok starlet Sister Bethany, FSP posted a video that said, "A quick reminder for Halloween: This is not a costume. I wear this every day of the year." The next day she uploaded a follow-up explaining that she didn't mean it in the way most people took it, to be about cultural appropriation and costumes, but instead that every year she's asked whether she is wearing a nun costume. The misunderstanding is a pretty good example of the growing pains of online nuns. Another popular nun, Sister Clare, expressed a similar sentiment and showed off how a nun wears a costume (integrated, somehow, with the habit … it works).

The Dutch convent Catholic Carmelite, which was previously profiled by i_D, seems to have mysteriously ceased TikTok operations, which is a shame because their content was a great example of best practices for any social media approach. The content still lives on in duets, and shows the sisters had a really solid understanding of memes' purposes, the memes themselves, and how to integrate them into their whole vibe. They are still active on Twitter and Instagram, which are more normal platforms with more normal content. Pictures and inspirational quotes, encouragement ... feel-good stuff makes more sense there.

My favorite genre is nuns doing normal things, like driving a tractor, playing tetherball, horseback riding, hosing each other off on a large garbage bag(?), sitting in a "brand new raptor," which I assume is a very nice car, doing a seven-year-late ice bucket challenge, running down the street, and just being nuns.

I do wish they dueted more.

You might recognize Sister Monica Clare, an Episcopalian nun who went viral for her skincare routine, which was nearly nonexistent. Her videos are some of the most relatable and soothing, in large part because of her demeanor and soft voice. She explains her vows effortlessly and smoothly, hitting on the largest concepts succinctly: her devotion to God is not a lack but a prioritization of what is important to her, religious women in the Episcopalian church can marry and have families as priests, so her role is for people for whom that lifestyle has never beckoned.

She explains the chapel's bat infestation, "we have bats in our belfry, the jokes write themselves … The thing about them is they're really, really cute." She goes into detail, demonstrating on her hand how small and adorable they are, obviously charmed and charming, before conceding, "it's not a good idea to have them in the house," with a sardonic smile. She also has the best username, @nunsenseforthepeople.

Sister Lisa primarily answers questions and educates, recently explaining in two parts how she ended up a Catholic nun after growing up Protestant and very wary of Catholicism. When she is not answering questions, she posts what are essentially micro-vlogs, snippets of excursions or projects like a beach day or cleaning up a park.

Recently Sister Lisa astutely connected contemporary nun social media use with Mother Angelica, founder of Catholic TV Network, as an example of this wave not being a sudden pivot to video for the women, but instead a long tradition.

Ultimately, the nuns are not relegated to TikTok. There are all kinds of nuns on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; all seeking and finding community and spreading their beliefs. Perhaps TikTok is the most interesting because it is the newest platform with the most desperate secular influencers, a dead-eyed emptiness of prank videos and true crime explainers, of uncharismatic dancers watering down choreography for late-night television.

Nuns bring a wave of earnestness to the platform. They are literally cloistered, unmotivated by flash-in-the-pan trends. NunTok and the like are one of the few windows into their lives, probably the only opportunity to hear a nun explain herself. As the Vatican continues to postpone the eventual priesthood of people of any gender, they have allowed nuns to build their own bully pulpit. While women are beginning to speak up more in mass, deliver reflections and read the gospel, these social media accounts might be some of the most effective outreach the church has. The nuns aren’t judgmental or scolding, and they’re not manipulating their audience to convert. They are simply speaking and sharing their lives, which is more than most nuns at any other point in history have been able to do.

As FatherTime66 says, "You got to love a good nun. They don't hit you like they used to."