The Difficult Art of Striking Up a Conversation
Originally published in L’Osservatore Romano on August 20, 2017
By: Silvia Guidi
Translated by: Kalin Holthaus
“The last thing on earth I ever thought of doing with my life was becoming a sister,” writes Sr. Loredana, recounting how the Spirit overturned all of her plans and brought her to “making a family” in a unforeseen and unexpected way.
Sr. Loredana is a member of the Apostles of the Interior Life, “consecrated women” – their website says – “ who dedicate themselves full time to helping their brothers and sisters on their journey towards God,” a new charism blossoming in both Italy and the United States. “The period of formation is at least five years,” the website explains, “two years of Philosophy and at least three, if not five, of Theology at one of the Pontifical Universities in Rome. We also dedicate time to our ongoing formation through personal study.” Culture is not optional for the Apostles; it is the very root of their charism. “Life is too great of a gift to be wasted on something less than perfect,” writes Sr. Elena citing Thomas Merton; but daily life with its burdens can makes us forget at times. The verse of a poem or the chords of on old song can open once again, at least for a second, horizons that seemed doomed to be closed forever. They can touch the heart of someone who has not set foot in a Church for a while or who is “allergic” to homilies. “In my life,” continues Sr. Elena, “I’ve always tried to do whatever could make me happy. As time went by, I came to realize that happiness was not an abstract or artificial reality, but a person: the Lord Jesus Christ.” A person capable of giving every day a whole, new, fresh reason for living, but a person who is “all demanding,” as the American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote. “And so I find myself in mint condition again. Perhaps it is because today is Monday, and the things of yesterday must also have risen, because they smell like newly bought clothes and are the new color of a freshly painted fence, almost surreal,” writes Sabina Nicolini on the blog La fontana del villaggio, inspired by her beloved Chesterton. In the post entitled “The Universe, Monday, and Three Poems,” Sabina intertwines three poems, one by Czeslaw Milosz, one by Eugenio Montale, and one by Jorge Luis Borges and in the discussion on the forum even a song by Giorgio Gaber was mentioned. “I was so happy because I knew that others could be too,” writes Sabina about her vocation. “This is the true hidden motive behind every Christian proclamation, and, in particular, of the charism of the Apostles of the Interior Life, that has helped us to understand our charism even more.”
You do not wear a habit; there’s no visible sign that you are nuns and you are completely immersed in the world.
To tell the truth, we are not “nuns,” in the strict sense. We are on a journey of understanding more and more about our identity within the Church in light of the Magisterium and the exciting history of the Church in which the Holy Spirit has inspired new forms of consecrated life over the years. We consider ourselves consecrated women, without hiding our identity in any way, but from a juridical standpoint we are a Private Association of the Faithful, not a Religious Institute. The scattered papers of our archives do reveal a few sketches of habits, though. Looking back at those straight lines and the bright baby blue, we definitely sigh in relief. There is also a sort of drawing across the chest of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. This just goes to show that the first few members were tempted by the idea of a habit. I do not know how long they tossed the idea around, but the designs were never actuated. It is true that until 1996, the Apostles wore skirts, but even by then the idea of the habit was long gone. Actually, the people that they would meet in their apostolate – parish missions, witness talks, but primarily bare-hand evangelization on the street and at the University – would encourage them to stay “as they were”, “like us,” more approachable without any separation caused by a strong visible sign. So, we renounced a visible sign, but not out of spite for signs; we appreciate them, but they are not for us. We feel that the Lord gives us and asks us for other signs: joy, being close to others, a humanity made available to everyone, and professing quickly in every encounter Him who makes us live as we do. Renouncing a distinctive sign is our way of manifesting that even God came close, emptying Himself, taking the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men (cfr. Philippians 2: 6-7), even renouncing the protection that a habit can offer. I would not say that we are trying to blend in or be the leaven in the dough of the world, like other forms of consecrated life describe themselves to be. The opposite tends to happen, that we are very visible where ever we are, not passing unobserved because of our particular style of taking the initiative in striking up conversations and getting people involved, each of us with her own approach. Doing this without a habit but instead trying to cultivate our femininity with dignity and good taste means living an “exposed virginity,” as a good priest friend once put it. If we know that virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven is a gift given by the Father to make of the body one of love, a body that knows how to welcome the other, that knows how to make itself a home for a multitude of brothers and sisters, “exposed virginity” is not a paradox. Our life speaks of belonging: to Christ and to a specific experience of consecration according to a charism. It is a belonging that does not want to become self-referential, though: the specifics of each community in the Church are always lived “for,” that is outside of oneself.
You do not have jobs that provide a living, but you live off of donations – from food to clothes. How do you live this complete dependence on others?
We live it in simplicity; that is the first thing that comes to mind, which means that we accept everything as a gift. Experience often says that it is easier to give than to receive. We receive with simplicity, as a sign of interdependence, as a renunciation of self-sufficiency. We receive to then be able to share, and to share with creativity (often times, the material Providence that we receive is very generous and is more than we need, so it allows us to give in turn to others in need). Doing this, starting from material things, teaches us to be grateful for spiritual gifts, for encounters with different people, for situations, for the unexpected. It teaches us to recognize the radical dependence that each person lives in relation to the Father. It is a sort of training to be able to recognize God’s hand in life’s events and to overcome the rampant temptation to control everything, which makes life difficult and makes circumstances “endured” instead of lived. Living together, from the example of the other sisters or in discernment together, helps us to ask one another: what does this event mean? Is God trying to remind us of something? How do we react to this novelty? Our decisions regarding the apostolate that we do often times come from the unexpected more than from precise strategies. We try to lay out the priorities together, in light of the Word of God and what the Church asks of Her people, but then we try to let Providence guide our activities, and to let the Lord, who is a strong navigator, recalculate our course.
Music and your charism: looking at the testimonies on your website, it seems to be a continual font of surprises and discoveries.
Discoveries, for sure. Because our formation is philosophical and theological, we used to think that meditations, classes, witness talks etc. were the most efficient means of letting Christ “be seen” (explanations are only needed by those who have already seen Him and want to know more, but for all of us, like the Greeks who approached the Apostle Philip, God first wants to be seen: “We want to see Jesus”!). Anyways, we started with great talks. Then, slowly but surely, sisters arrived with instruments: a piano, a guitar, a violin. And so, the words started coming with music and singing together. Not many of us have specific musical competency, but when we sing together people think we are talented. They “see” something. They feel it in their soul: God touches their hearts, He strikes a chord in their most intimate selves. We began then, in schools for example, to weave together witness talks with some instrumental pieces and songs. We saw that somehow the music we play makes the words we say sink in deeper. It gets people’s attention, it breaks down barriers, and it penetrates prejudices. It sneaks in. It’s dangerous; it’s captivating. One teacher told us that by speaking and singing we showed the students that God is Beauty. From then on we began to offer evenings in which we announce the Good News, present testimonies, and in which music takes the lead. It is as if it helps any other word reach the heart.
Your history is marked by the presence of founders and foundresses.
Yes, males and females, singular and plural. That is how it happened. We call only padre Salvatore Scorza our “founder” (he’s a “father,” in that he is a priest for the diocese of Rome, but we call him “padre” because of the unexpected fatherhood in the sons and daughters that the Lord has given him) [translator’s note: in Italian, diocesan priests go by the title “don” which does not translate to “father” whereas religious priests go by the title “padre” which is literally “father”]. He nurtured the intuition for years, waiting with patience and prudence, not desiring huge numbers, working behind the scenes, but with great firmness even in front of initial misunderstandings. We also call him in jest “af-fondatore” [translator’s note: “fondatore” in Italian means “founder” whereas “affondatore” is “he who causes something to sink”], availing ourselves of the liberty and critical sense that he himself has always encouraged so that the Community would not create the “myth” of the founder, but would allow itself to grow, learn from experience, let the charism flourish. And that really happens with each one of us. In particular, the first two Apostles – Susan and Tiziana – had a decisive impact on the charism, on the lifestyle, on our apostolic style. They are the first two women who received and lived the charism, and thus mixed it with their personalities. They could not be any more different. The first – Susan – an American of the most heavenly naivety; the second – Tiziana – a Roman, witty, sly, very lively: a combination that still today is a miracle of communion. If among the twelve Apostles there was a tax collector and a zealot, the first two Apostles of the Interior Life became friends and were united in a completely unexpected way, and for seven long years they were the only ones to receive formation and to begin to live out the charism, contaminating it with their own ideas and helping to prevent each other from possible exaggerations. Balance is a key word for us: an art that the first sisters had to learn the hard way! Surely living alongside the founder brought a lot to the table: femininity with its receptivity, softness, and elasticity. Padre Salvatore himself joyfully recognizes the feminine potential: “They never invite me to preach; they always invite you!” In 2007, the male branch of the Apostles of the Interior Life was born from the call strongly heard by a few young men, accompanied on their journey by Sisters of the female branch. They too call Padre Salvatore their founder, but he always says that the male branch was born from the apostolic fecundity of the female branch. It’s truly a story of founders and foundresses.
Italy and the United States, a continuous back and forth; how difficult is it, but also spiritually fecund and fertile, to have continuous, reciprocal culture shock?
Today the Community is present in these two countries, almost equally divided in half. The majority of us are Italian, but the Americans are rapidly growing in number since we opened houses on American university campuses (starting in 2000 and currently in Kansas and Texas). And yet, this coupling was already present in the beginning: the first member, unpredictably, an American; the second a Roman. This union is in the DNA of our history, opening its horizons, doubling its vantage points. The challenge is accepting the strong points of each culture and letting go of the weak points without falling into stereotypes. Sometimes life reminds us of our differences, for example, every once in a while in the apartment in Rome one wakes up to the smell of beans and scrambled eggs instead of cappuccino or in meetings, the Italian sense of endless debate meets head on with the pragmatic and efficient American spirit that actually arrives at final decisions, at least for the following week. The culture clash is undeniably fruitful. Just as we import and export food stuffs (real parmesan cheese in America and peanut butter in Italy), the same happens with our apostolic ideas, spiritual discoveries, and experiences of the universal Church. It goes both ways, because in the United States the charism, without a doubt, has been enriched by taking new paths in new contests, like the university campuses. We have met a laity that is extremely involved, well formed, and that desires even more formation, provoking the Community to offer tools that are more specific and greater in depth. One such tool being the Catholic Spiritual Mentorship Program, a program started in the diocese of Kansas City, Kansas – but that serves all of the dioceses in America – to form spiritual mentors. We have brought our experience from Rome, thus ample and “catholic,” to the U.S. which gives us tools to better interpret what is happening in America. In Italy we want to transmit the hope and resourcefulness of the Church in the U.S., with a desire to collaborate with different ecclesial realities. Another example of a fruitful encounter between cultures is Samuel Group. It is a vocational discernment group that was born in the diocese of Milan through Cardinal Martini. A few of our Ambrosian sisters experienced the journey of Samuel Group before entering Community, and having experienced its beauty, they thought about bringing it to American students, which they did with the blessing of Cardinal Martini himself. Now the program is known on a national level in the U.S. and has been exported to other dioceses; the Apostles even had the chance to present it to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.