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Dolores H. Fischer is a retired teacher of English and Spanish at Napa Valley College in California.


"Would you consider becoming a saint?"

Twenty years ago in Napa, Califomia, a visiting priest from Italy spoke these words to 19-year-old Susan Pieper, a lively, intelligent, witty, and attractive girl planning to attend college and find a career. Father Salvatore Scorza's question - a challenge really - shocked her.

Today she is Sister Susan Pieper, founder and mother superior in Rome of a community of sisters dedicated to helping souls find salvation and achieve sanctity. She and 13 other consecrated women work as did the Apostles, going directly to those in need of Christ and His Church. They speak to people on the streets and university campuses; they preach missions; they counsel, acting as spiritual advisor§ both to laity and Religious. Attempting to relate closely to modem youth and avoid the anticlerical sentiments often rudely expressed toward Religious in Rome, they,dress in simple street clothes and speak clearly about God's grace, modem temptations, the lack of devotion to God, and the necessity to save one's soul. Thus emulating the Apostles, their community is appropriately called the Apostles of the Interior Life (Apostole delta Vita Interiore).

All this came about because 20 years ago Susan, struck by the priest's words, decided she must, through prayer and meditation, discover God's will for her life. She said recently, 'A whole new world opened up to me with Father's words. I'd always thought sanctity was for a few chosen people, but he said sanctity can and should be for all. Deeply influenced by Fr. Scorza's remark, and seeldng a Catholic education, Susan began college at Notre Dame in Belmont, California, in 1977. While there she incorporated the priest's challenge into her own life plan - to form a community of sisters who would be evangelists and spiritual counselors. To her knowledge no Religious group dedicated itself solely to these pursuits.

Convinced that God wanted her to prepare, she went to Rome to study theology after receiving her college degree. Her parents, slightly dubious about her intentions, nevertheless supported her decision to attend the Angelicum, a pontifical university. There she kept in contact with Fr. Scorza, worked hard to improve her limited knowledge of Italian, and undertook her course of studies. But those early years in Italy were extremely difficult. The shock of Roman culture was great. The city, though beautiful, was crowded and noisy; the people seemed uninterested in piety; the atmosphere was charged with the clash between a religious past and the secular present, which is showy and hedonistic.

Perhaps because of the cultural shock she experienced, she began to founder in her university work. She could have left, abandoned everything, gone home, joined a "regular" community devoted to teaching or social service, or totally given up her vocation. But she persisted and gradually adjusted to the new life. Her work improved, and after five years she received degrees in philosophy and theology. God, she believes, taught her humility and acceptance of His will by means of her first lonely years in Rome.

She worked and planned with Fr. Scorza and other Catholics she met and got to know. There was much to do. The need for evangelization and catechesis in Italy was obvious. Only some 10 percent of Catholics, saturated as they are by hedonism and commercialism, attend Mass. The attitudes of many Italians toward their religion reflect at best indifference, at worst hostility. For example, although Religious in habits are a common sight on Roman streets, they are often insulted by passersby.

In 1990 Susan began the community with five young Italian women. Each year a few more postulants have arrived; there are currently 13 sisters, and another is preparing to enter. All are young and all are Italian. Their formation is critical and demanding, and the women must demonstrate that they have a profound desire to serve God in all things. The discernment of their true vocation requires the concentrated prayer of the entire community. And they must, just as Susan did, study five years of philosophy and theology in a pontifical university, an education similar to that of a seminarian. This training is vital because a very important part of their work is counseling priests, brothers, and nuns. Sr. Susan believes that to counsel well one,must be fully prepared intellectually as well as spiritually.

Living in community in four apartments in Rome (all provided through God's providence, since the sisters earn no money whatsoever), the young women spend four hours daily in prayer. No matter the demands of their work, the base of their lives is prayer because without this their work would not succeed. Sr. Susan cites the disastrous results when Religious fail to pray. Neomodemism and self-seeldng overwhelm, and goals become flat and worldly.

In September 1996 the community was officially recognized by the Diocese of Rome. Sr. Susan comments: "The Church is saying we have trust in you." On one occasion she spoke with Pope John Paul II. Astonished at the rapidity of the community's growth, he asked, "Are they all consecrated?" Indeed they are, and each year they renew their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The sisters' work sometimes takes unexpected forms. On her way to a certain church, Sr. Susan must pass through an area frequented by prostitutes and their clients. Once she was stopped by a man seeking sex for pay. The well-dressed businessman received a stem lecture from her; she told him it was not right that a woman could not walk on the streets of Rome without being propositioned. Later in church, reflecting on the incident, she realized that she had not really helped the man. She determined to handle it differently should it happen again.

A few days later, on the same walk, she had her opportunity. A man in a car stopped to proposition her. She began to talk, trying to make him think and reason, and slowly to bring the discussion to a spiritual level. She said, "How can you live this way, only looking for pleasure? Don't you realize you are looking for something to fill you up, to satisfy you? Once you have one satisfaction, you will look for another and another in an unending chain. You don't realize that the links of this chain - life's pleasures - will never satisfy you. They hold you, they seem to attract you, but what is really drawing you is the magnet at the end of the chain. That magnet is God." The man, initially shocked, seemed deeply moved. At the end of their conversation, when she promised to pray for him, he responded, "I really need it. Please pray for me!"

At times the result of the sisters'work is not so easily perceived. A Swedish girl, working in Rome, was living a life dedicated to sex. and drugs. But such diversions did not satisfy her. She attempted suicide but was unsuccessful. Getting to know her, Sr. Susan often talked of the life of the Spirit, but the girl would not heed her words. Then she disappeared from Rome, leaving Susan to wonder what had happened. A number of years passed, and one day Susan got a phone call from Sweden. The girl said she had not forgotten a word of their conversations and that their friendship had been of great help to her, especially in times of trouble.

Taking advantage of every means to reach souls, Sr. Susan has appeared numerous times on Italian television on talk shows similar, she says, to that of Oprah Winfrey. One host, Marizio Costanzo, has repeatedly invited her to return, despite his emphatic anti-Catholic views. In her second language of Italian, facing the man considered one of the sharpest critics of Catholicism in Italy, she has defended the Church's teachings, particularly on sexual matters, divorce and remarriage, abortion, homosexuality, and celibacy. "I believe that what strikes people," she says, "is that we appear as normal, rational people who live lives of peace." She has pften been approached in the streets of Rome by people who say, "I saw you on TV. I enjoyed what you said."

The Apostles of the Interior Life are not feminists. Cognizant of the special roles Christ has created for women, they seek to do His work within the Church's structure. They oppose, on theological grounds, those who agitate for priestesses. They know that the Catholic Church is not hostile to women, as some feminists claim. Studies at pontifical universities have well prepared Susan and the other sisters for dealing with the fashionable criticisms of the Church.

God's providence sustains them, and Sr. Susan willingly relates examples of His work. Four years ago they were nine sisters in a crowded 100 square-meter apartment. Another woman wanted to join and, lacking room for her, the sisters began a novena to Padre Pio, the Franciscan mystic and stigmatist who died in the late 19 60s. Besides asking for his intercessions for new housing, they requested that he somehow indicate he had helped them. The rest of this story may be disbelieved by those unwilling to accept that the hand of God moves in people's lives, but on the final day of the novena, at a meeting of married couples that Sr. Susan attended, a woman offered the community a wonderful gift, household goods from an apartment that she owned but no longer rented out because of an unpleasant experience with tenants. A vacant apartment in Rome? Little elaboration is needed. The generous woman, on learning of the sisters' housing needs, then gave the congregation the use of the apartment, even promising to pay the utilities. On the day the sisters moved in, a pamphlet was discovered in the mailbox; its cover featured a picture of Padre Pio. Sr. Susan says, Padre Pio came through. It was as if he had said, "It wasn't enough to give you the grace of another dwelling. I also decided to give you a sign that I had a hand in it."

Still, the incongruities of the community loom. It was founded by an American in Rome, dedicated to prayer and saving souls, staffed by orthodox Religious women who dress casually and stroll worldly university campuses and hectic city streets seeking to speak with passersby about salvation and sanctity. The apostolate depends on God's providence and produces no tangible bounty. Can this community survive?

Remarkably, it is the fastest growing Catholic community in Italy. Eventually the sisters hope to have a branch in the U.S., where, as Sr. Susan says, there is great spiritual need. Her visits here convince her that the Church in America, although in crisis, has great strengths and many devout members. She says the sisters would probably wear habits in the U.S.

Enthusiasm abounds among the sisters. Talking to them, hearing their stories of God's help and of the joy they find in their vocations, one becomes convinced that they are sorely needed in this country as well as in Italy. And their peacefulness is contagious. "Susan is the happiest person I have ever met," said a Protestant friend of mine. People wonder at the source of herjoy. Listening to her moves them to look more closely at their own relationship to God. Sr. Susan amazes listeners with her forthrightness. As she has said more than once, "I fell in love with someone, and that Someone is Jesus." As she and the other Brides of Christ know, His love is sufficient for all.

(Further information about the community is available by writing Sister Susan Pieper; Apostles of the Interior Life; Via Luca Signorelli 8, int. 12; 00196 Rome; Italy. Telephone: 06-3235111. E-mail:

First published in New Oxford Review, November 1998.