TAKING THE GOSPEL TO THE STREETS
Dolores H. Fischer is a retired teacher of English and
Spanish at Napa Valley College in California.
A NEW WOMEN'S RELIGIOUS CONGREGATION DEVOTED TO EVANGELIZATION
"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
(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: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
published in New Oxford
Review, November 1998.